Shabbat Parashat Yitro| 5767
Keep Your Distance
As Bnei Yisrael encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai to witness Hashem’s revelation and accept the Torah, Hashem laid out strict rules to keep them from approaching the mountain. Even the kohanim (the firstborn, who at that time were religious functionaries), who were used to approaching to serve, Hashem had to keep their distance (Shemot 19:22). Why were people who were fit to approach Hashem in a Beit Hamikdash type setting not allowed to do so at this time?
One might suggest that here, where Hashem was revealing Himself, “seeing Hashem” was improper and potentially lethal (see ibid. 33:20). However, Rabbeinu Bachyei infers from the p’sukim that Bnei Yisrael were warned only not to try to see Hashem. As far as actually seeing Him, they couldn’t even if they tried.
Looking into the matter, we may notice something interesting regarding Moshe Rabbeinu, the only one to go all the way up the holy mountain. In his first encounter with Hashem, at the s’neh (burning bush), Moshe was told not to approach the s’neh because it was too holy. How is it that at the more powerful revelation Moshe was allowed to get as close as can be and previously not?
Perhaps the answer is contained in a well-known pasuk in Tehillim (111:10): “Reishit chuchma yirat Hashem (The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d).” It is not only that fear of Hashem is a basic to wisdom. The pasuk also infers that the proper order of attaining wisdom is to start by ensuring proper fear of Hashem. Once accomplished, one can draw closer in search of greater familiarity with and inspiration from Him. However, trying to “see Hashem” without prefacing it with a deep realization that the Divine is not fully approachable is dangerous.
At the s’neh,Moshe learned the lesson that he was incapable of fully grasping Hashem. He reacted by hiding his face. After showing he had the proper fear, he was later commanded to approach the Divine as much as a human can. Aharon, who was a prophet, could get closer than others. Some say that the kohanim also got closer than others in the nation (Rashi to 19:24), for they had experienced approaching Hashem and knew the regulations of not violating the boundaries. Others had to keep a greater distance.
Let’s put it another way. It is not that people should not go forward even though they cannot see. Rather, they should not go forward because they cannot see. Those who see better are more likely to know that they cannot see everything. Those who see less may think they have reached the pinnacle of understanding; that is very dangerous. Yirat Hashem helps set one straight on his self-appraisal.
In our times, some people are willing to experience an intense, spiritual experience or delve into the mystical before accepting the concept of fear of Hashem. As our forefathers learned, a healthy dose of humility and fear should precede an intimate “look” at the Divine. In truth, even at a healthy distance, exposure to the Divine is awe-inspiring and memorable.
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