A Fire in the Sky: Yitro 2021

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Are you afraid of fire? If not, how did you overcome that fear? If you are, how do ou cope with tasks such as lighting a candle?

As God prepares to speak to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, a display of fire impacts the Israelites on multiple levels:

The Pitch: “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently” – Exodus 19:18

Swing #1: “The text uses … the adverb ‘very’ [violently] in the sense of an absolute superlative. The intention of the author/editor of this passage seems to be clear. Both people and nature (specifically, the sacred space of the covenant-making ritual) tremble equally before YHWH.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #2: “I might think the place of the divine Presence alone [was in smoke]; it is, therefore, written ‘was all.’ … We are hereby apprised that the Torah is fire, that it was given from fire, and that it is comparable to fire, i.e., just as with fire, if one gets (too) close to it, he is burned, and if he is (too) far from it, he is chilled, so, (with Torah) one must ‘heat’ himself only by its light (and not by its flames).” – Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael

Swing #3: “Seeing that we are terrestrial human beings, bound to concepts which we can visualize, the Torah cannot describe matters of a spiritual nature except by using terms familiar to us from our daily experience on earth.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: How does the presence of fire make the scene at Mount Sinai more dramatic? How does it illuminate (no pun intended) the hopes and fears of the people? Which people and ideas cause you to light up?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: It’s not too late to register for our Klein Scholar lecture series, which will take place on Saturday nights at 7:00 p.m. throughout February. Email kleinscholar@btzbuffalo.org.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of fire, I love the story of New York Yankees Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez lighting a match before stepping into the batter’s box to face an intimidating pitcher. When the umpire asked Gomez whether he could see the pitcher, he replied that he could, but “I just want to make sure he can see me.”

Shabbat Shalom!