Shabbat Parashat Yitro| 5764
Steadily and SurelyRabbi Macy Gordon
In the dramatic description of the historic events at Mt. Sinai, lies hidden away in the very last pasuk of this week’s Reading (Shemot 20:23) a rather banal and seemingly irrelevant commandment. It teaches that when Israel builds a sanctuary and its furnishings, there is to be an altar for sacrifice. The commandment specifies that the altar may not be ascended by stairs, but by a ramp. Many of our readers, who have seen museum models of the appurtenances of the Mishkan or of the Temples, will have noticed that a long ramp leads up to the altar, which was much taller than a person’s height. The reason given in the pasuk is so that nakedness not be exposed to the altar. The priestly vestments were such that a kohen spreading his legs to take a big step up on stairs would breach the proper level of tzeniut in regard to the altar.
The late Israeli scholar, Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, gave an additional, deep reason for the choice of a ramp rather than stairs. What is the difference between steps and a ramp as means of ascent? There is more to it than speed of ascent or accessibility to the handicapped. Stairs are level. Although each step takes more effort, one can ascend a few stairs, and if one tires, one can comfortably stop and rest before continuing the journey upwards. On a ramp one need not take big steps, but one’s feet must always be tensed to maintain balance on the slope. There is no “resting” on a ramp without exerting effort. If you place a ball on a stair it will stay exactly where it is. If you place a ball on a ramp, it will roll down unless it is constantly being pushed upward.
This idea is particularly significant when one climbs the altar of G-d, sacrificing certain comforts or ideas to fulfill His mitzvot. We have been blessed in our day with many who have sought out G-d, coming to Torah Judaism on their own, by climbing a very steep incline in their personal lives. The altar teaches us that there is no stairway to Heaven. There is no place to rest even if one has taken big steps. While one doesn’t have to take giant steps or leaps at once, one cannot rest on some plateau in religious life or in Torah observance. As on a ramp, one ascends by steps suited to one’s individual ability, but the tension to move up must always be there. One who takes too long a rest or tries to stay stationary will inevitably fall back.
“Becoming observant” is a difficult life’s work. There is no better example than Yitro, for whom this week’s Reading is named. But the final lesson in this Reading is, “Don’t go for big leaps and try for everything all at once; don’t use stairs, and certainly not two or three stairs at a time. A ramp is better. But at the same time, no rest stops. Your direction should always be upwards or you will find yourself falling back.” It is a beautiful message for the chozer b’teshuvah, but it shouldn’t be lost on those who were raised religiously, as well.
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