‘An altar of earth or unhewn stones’
How does one come close to God and how does God come close to us?
This question underlies the narrative structure of the story of the revelation of the Decalogue in Parashat Yitro. The account begins with God stating the purpose behind the covenant with Israel. God carried our ancestors out of Egypt on “eagle’s wings” and brought them to Mount Sinai to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel and God were to become close, bound together with a set of promises and obligations. (Exodus 19:4-6) Yet, when God decided to descend upon the mountain in a cloud of glory to meet the Israelites, God warned them to stay away. (Exodus 19:10-15)
God’s presence can be overwhelming. Despite elaborate ritual purifications, the Israelites were told to avoid coming too close to God. God instructed Moses to set bounds around the mountain and to advise the Israelites that crossing them would incur a death penalty. Touching the mountain was deadly. Even gazing at the Divine presence was perilous. Only Moses had permission to come near.
Mount Sinai was full of smoke and fire. Trumpet blasts warned the people off. Through the thunder and flames, God proclaimed the Decalogue and the people trembled with fear and stood back. They had come to meet God, but God’s presence pushed them away.
An unapproachable God, no matter how powerful and holy, is of little help. God’s glory evokes awe and fear. Even the majesty of God’s greatest creations fills us with wonder. But we cannot get physically and emotionally close to God as the One who defeated Pharaoh, split the sea, and thundered at Sinai. We will be overwhelmed rather than embraced by God’s presence.
Today, as in ancient days, a common response to the question of how to approach the awesome God is to reduce God, to downsize God to the human level, to create physical or verbal images of God that we can control. We build idols, representations of God that we can hold in our hands and keep in our homes. We domesticate God. We make God our pet. We give God treats and hope that God responds by giving us love and protection.
This response seems so natural that the first warning we receive after the Decalogue is a prohibition against making divine images of gold and silver. (Exodus 20:20) It is so comfortable that the first rebellion is the making of the Golden Calf when God and Moses seemed far away. (Exodus 32:1-6) It is so wrong because by taming God, we have made our powerful God powerless.
Another response would be for God to elevate us. Moses suggested that when the Israelites begged him to be their intermediary. But we can only be elevated so far. Despite our deepest wishes, we are bound by our physical being. We can only rise so high no matter how reverent and good we may be. (Exodus 20:15-18) We are not heavenly beings but earthbound creatures.
But, the Torah suggests a third response. God and humanity can meet in the middle. God can reduce Himself somewhat and, likewise, we can elevate ourselves a bit. After being warned against idolatry, the Torah invites us back into God’s presence—not around a burning mountain, but before a simple altar, a symbolic mountain, made of dirt or unhewn stones with the flickering flames of the fire for roasting the sacrifice.
Much of the Torah deals with the rules and regulations pertaining to the sacrificial worship system of our ancient ancestors. It is easy to get lost in the details. But here, as we bring the story of Sinai to an end and segue into the first legal code in the Torah, we are reminded of the essential nature of worship—our encounter with God. Here we learn the basic lesson—if we assemble the altar peacefully and approach it modestly, it will be the place where heaven and earth touch and God and humanity meet. Or in other terms, true encounters only occur when we are able to control ourselves and not try to change the other.