Yitro—Running and Returning

All the people saw the voices, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they moved and stood at a distance.  They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will listen, but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”  (Ex 20:15-16)

Rashi: They saw the voices: They saw the audible, which it is impossible to see anywhere else.
 . . . the voices:  which were uttered by the mouth of God.
and they moved: va-yanu’u means “and they shuddered”
and stood at a distance:  they recoiled twelve miles to the rear–the whole length of the camp–and the ministering angels came and helped to restore them to their place.

We often refer to this point in Israel’s story as “Standing at Sinai,” but the Torah story shows how this event undermines the conventional sense of our “standing.”   Rather than our holding our place, Rashi shows us an inner oscillation mirrored in the motions of ” running and returning” (cf. Ezekiel 1)–recoiling from the divine thunder, restored by angels; dying, and being reborn.

Avivah Zornberg relates a wonderful teaching on this from Ha-amek Davar*.  It notes that when Moses reassures the people that God has come to them “in order to test (le-nasoth) you,” Rashi translates le-nasoth  as “to exalt you.”  “The extreme polarities of Israel’s response to Revelation express a moment of immense growth.  The people are stretched to the limits of their strength.  The effect is to release a new sense of their own capacities, a new awareness of their ability to contain previously unknown extremes.  It is human spiritual greatness that is God’s purpose in revealing Himself.”  (264)

*”The Depth of the Word,” a Torah commentary by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-93, rabbi of Volozhin and head of the yeshiva there.  At the time, Volozhin was part of Tsarist Russia; now it is in present day Belarus.

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