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Parashat Hashavuah: Yitro

“And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai” Exodus 19:20

    In a beautiful rabbinic interpretation, we are told that there is an apparent contradiction between the verse, “And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:20) and a verse that comes just one chapter later, “For from the heavens I spoke with you” (Exodus 20:18).

    How can these two verses both be correct, the Midrash asks: either God spoke from the heavens or came down on to Mount Sinai? 

    The Midrash resolves the problem by turning to  a third verse from Deuteronomy (4:36), which contends that we hear God from the heavens and encounter God’s fire on the earth, from which we hear God’s words.

    We might be forgiven for thinking that this is an attempt to understand contradictions in the biblical text. 

    However, the scholar Azzan Yadin, shows that really this midrash seeks to describe a theological conundrum. How, the rabbinic sages wonder, can we understand the divine and human worlds meeting? 

    Is God beyond this world speaking from the heavens or is it possible to encounter God face-to-face on a mountain? The Midrash goes on to include an idea that God bent the heavens down on to the earth to meet Moses — the heavens incline to the earth and at that moment revelation occurs.

    After teaching these texts regularly over the last few years, I have come to think that the challenge which begins with an apparent contradiction in verses of Torah, is the closest the rabbis imagine getting to Sinai. 

    Our sacred text, which describes the intensity of experience that forged our people, is where the rabbis encounter God. That is why the struggle with the text becomes paradigmatic for Jewish life after the Temple is destroyed. In the text, the heavens kiss the earth and at that moment, revelation continues

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