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The Trial at Sinai

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Trial at Sinai


By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Yitro begins with the unexpected visit of Yitro to the Israelite encampment at "the mountain of God, at Chorev" in the Sinai Peninsula.  Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, arrives with Tzippora, Moshe's wife, and his two young sons, all of whom had been separated from him when he journeyed from Midian to Egypt in order to secure the release of the Hebrews.  While there is a lively debate concerning the exact chronology of events leading up to Yitro's visit, its textual juxtaposition to the attack of Amalek narrated at the end of last week's Parasha naturally invites us to compare and to contrast the two events.  In both cases, a non-Hebrew group or individual reacts to the events of the Exodus by journeying towards their camp and initiating an encounter.  But while the marauding tribe of Amalek attacks Israel without provocation, striking down the old and weak who lag behind at the rear of the camp, Yitro arrives bearing blessings and expressing sincere identification with Israel and their God. 


In effect, the Torah indicates that Amalek and Yitro represent two wildly divergent responses to the final defeat of Pharaoh at the Sea of Reeds and the consequent entry of Israel onto the stage of world history.  Pharaoh was of course, the ancient world's most durable monarch, a self-styled god king who alone dictated the fate of millions, raising up his devoted subjects' prestige as well as his own massive monuments to self-aggrandizement on the broken backs of countless captive serfs.  How valiantly did Pharaoh oppose the God of the Hebrews, the invisible and indivisible Deity, who repeatedly proclaimed the immorality of slavery and the inviolability of every human life by demanding the release of Israel from bondage! 




The foundation idea of a transcendent moral code, binding all people to deal justly and kindly with each other, obligating all men and women, sovereign and slave alike, to basic civilized behavior, was naturally not one that Pharaoh and his ilk could willingly suffer for long.  Amalek's attack, then, as Israel marched to Sinai to receive the Torah, was an explicit endorsement of Pharaoh's approach.  The nation of Amalek publicly proclaimed by their diabolism that the world at large was unprepared to accept the meddlesome morality of Israel's God, for it constituted an intolerable infringement on the privilege of tyrants everywhere to exercise the brutal rights enshrined in the popular code known as the "survival of the fittest."


Enter Yitro, aged patriarch and priest of Midian, heir to the hoary pagan traditions of the Arabian peninsula.  He too hears the fantastic reports of Israel's deliverance, the news of Pharaoh's miraculous downfall and of Egypt's premature demise.  But for Yitro, such tidings constitute an affirmation of his evolving faith in the God of Israel, an avowal of the precious principles enshrined in the Decalogue that Israel at that moment stood to receive.  Entering the perimeter of Israel's encampment, Yitro can immediately sense the excitement and promise of liberation that still linger in the air with the spring breeze:


Yitro was joyous concerning all of the goodness that God had done for Israel, for He had saved them from the clutches of Egypt.  Yitro said: 'Blessed be God who saved you from the grip of Egypt and from the grip of Pharaoh, for He has saved the people from being under Egypt's power.  Now I surely know that God is greater than all other gods, for this was on account of the fact that they oppressed them… (18:9-11).


Yitro, of course, not only joins his personal destiny with that of the people of Israel but also later leaves his mark on their national fabric forever by initiating the essential reforms that constitute the creation of a judiciary (18:13-27).  With the appointment at his behest of "God-fearing" men to serve as adjudicators, not only is Moshe freed from the impossible task of judging all civil cases, but also the people of Israel are granted more speedy and equitable access to justice.


These themes of justice and righteousness, of fidelity to an absolute morality necessarily associated with the Absolute God, are stated most emphatically in the passage that follows – the Revelation at Sinai and God's pronouncement of the Decalogue.  These Ten Utterances, almost evenly balanced between our responsibilities to God and our responsibilities to our fellow, are still universally regarded to this day as the fountainhead of ethical conduct and the wellspring that nurtures the caring human conscience.  What heart could remain unmoved by their noble simplicity, which constitutes the most forceful statement of right and wrong that the world has ever known!




The people of Israel stood attentively as the smoking mount shuddered, the bolts of blue lightening flashed, and God's words thundered from its summit.  But overawed by the display and by its deafening accompaniment, they fearfully approached Moshe and begged his intercession on their behalf:


They said to Moshe: "speak thou to us and we will listen, and let not God address us lest we die!"


Allaying their fears, Moshe responded:


…"Do not be afraid, for God has come in order to try (leNaSot) you, and in order that His fear be upon you so that you transgress not."  The people stood at a distance while Moshe drew close to the thick cloud of God's presence (20:15-17).


Moshe's reply as he attempts to calm them appears to contain two discrete elements.  On the one hand, he indicates that God's overwhelming manifestation is not meant to frighten them but only to "try" them.  At the same time, Moshe adds that His is not an arbitrary display of might (after the manner of Pharaonic posturing to which they had much grown accustomed over the centuries of their enslavement), but rather a purposeful and focused demonstration calculated to inspire their hearts with awe so that they do not stray from His words.


While the deterrent effect of the second component is straightforward enough, the first element concerning the "trial" (NiSayon) is more problematic.  What does the text mean by indicating that God must "try" them?  Can there be something that the omniscient Deity doesn't already know concerning their response to His revelation?  The commentaries offer a variety of explanations and we will consider some of them.




Rashi remarks:


"God has come in order to try (leNaSot) you" – this means in order to magnify you in the world, that your reputation be famous among all the nations who hear that He in His glory appeared to you.  "Nasot" means elevation and greatness, as the verse states "raise up an ensign (NeS) over the nations" (Yeshayahu 62:10), "I will raise my banner (NiSi)" (IBID, 49:22), "as a post (NeS) upon a hill" (IBID, 30:17), which is to say upright.


"and in order that His fear be upon you so that you transgress not" – By seeing Him awesome and threatening, you will realize that there is none besides Him, and you will fear Him.  (commentary to Shemot 20:16).


For Rashi, the critical notion is not trial or test at all but rather greatness.  Connecting "NaSot" to its equivalent noun form "NeS," Rashi explains that just as the noun indicates that which is raised up or high, such as an ensign, banner or post, the verb indicates the process of being elevated for all to see.  Hence, Moshe allays the people's fears by telling them that the purpose of God's inspiring display is not to test or to try but rather to enhance Israel's reputation among the nations.  At the same time, such exaltation carries with it greater responsibility, for now Israel is expected to "fear" and revere the God who so appeared to them. 


Rashi is thus able to neatly connect both elements of the verse, making the second phrase a direct function of the first.  His explanation also highlights the "Amalek/Yitro" matrix discussed above from which the Decalogue emerges, for it now appears that the Sinaitic revelation has much to say not only to the people of Israel but to the world of nations as well.  Nevertheless, his grammatical derivation is questionable.  In Biblical Hebrew, there is no support for the transformation of this noun form into a verbal equivalent.  Additionally, almost every other usage of the verb in the Tanakh (occurring 36 times) unambiguously indicates "trail" or "test."  Three examples from last week's Parasha alone are sufficient to drive home this point:


They came to Marra but could not drink water from Marra for they were bitter (therefore its name was called "Marra").  The people complained to Moshe saying "what shall we drink?"  He cried out to God, and God showed him a tree that he cast into the water and made it sweet.  There He gave to them a statute and law, and there He tested them (NiSahoo) (15:23-25).


God said to Moshe: "behold, I will cause food to fall from the sky for you.  The people will go out daily to gather it, in order that I might test them (aNaSenoo) to see if they will follow My Torah or not" (16:4).


The entire congregation of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Seen at God's command.  They encamped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink.  The people strove with Moshe and they said: "give us water to drink!"  Moshe said to them: "why are you striving with me, why are you testing (teNaSoon) God?" (17:2).


Interestingly enough, though, last week's Parasha does indeed conclude with a final use of the term after the manner of Rashi, but this time in NOUN form: Moshe built an altar, and he called it "God is my ensign (NiSi)" (17:15).


Thematically, Rashi's interpretation is also problematic, for how are the other nations of the world to become aware of an event, impressive as it was, that occurred in the uninhabited wilderness, and at which only the people of Israel were present?  It is probably these difficulties that prompted the Ramban (13th century, Spain) to conclude that Rashi's explanation "is not correct" (20:16).




The Ramban himself offers no fewer than three possible explanations for the term:


It would seem that Moshe is indicating to the people that God revealed Himself in order to CONDITION them in faith.  By manifesting His presence to them, trust in Him entered their hearts so that they would cling to Him, and will never be separated from Him…the usage is similar to (what David said to Shaul when he rejected the heavy armor of the latter as he prepared to battle Goliath): "David said to Shaul: 'I cannot don these, for I am not used to it' (NiSiti) (Shemuel 1:17:39), that is to say, not conditioned.


In this first explanation, Ramban posits that God desired to inculcate faith and trust in the people of Israel, which He did by revealing His glory to them at Sinai.  Moshe calms their fears by telling them that God did not desire to frighten or overwhelm them, but rather only to nurture their budding belief in Him.  Of course, one might argue that the progressive development of trust in God is not best served by an initial spiritual hammer blow of Sinaitic magnitude, but rather by incremental steps of dawning awareness.  Recognizing the utter uniqueness of the Revelation at Sinai, and aware of its astounding import, the Ramban therefore provides another possibility:


Maimonides argues in his Guide of the Perplexed that Moshe said to them: "do not be afraid.  What you have seen was in order to strengthen you.  Should God test your faith by sending a false prophet to contradict what you have heard, you will not falter forever from the true path, because you have already seen the truth with your own eyes."  If so, the intent of the verse "God has come in order to try (leNaSot) you" is to say that God appeared to you now so that He will be able to test you later, so that you will succeed in passing every test of His.


Here, of course, the Ramban moves closer to understanding "nisayon" according to its common meaning: a test or trial.  But rather than assigning it any significance in the people's present situation, he adopts Maimonides' explanation who sees its primary value in future terms.  In essence, Moshe puts the people at ease by indicating to them that God's fearsome display is not without significance.  By impressing upon them the truth of His words by framing them with fire, lightening, and the deafening sound of the shofar as the summit of Sinai was ablaze (20:14), God attempts to steel the people's faith against the future challenges that they will face from sources of skepticism and doubt.  Ramban has thus shifted the emphasis to the post-Sinai period of Jewish history.  But here again, we may wonder whether in fact the effects of the Sinai experience can never wear off.  Though the people of Israel have certainly preserved the memory of that moment faithfully, have we succeeded in safeguarding its experiential content to a degree that can fend off serious faith challenges? 




It is the third and final explanation of the Ramban that is most intriguing as well as most relevant to our present-day condition:


In my opinion, the term literally means "test" or "trial."  Moshe tells them that "God desired to test you to see whether you will now keep His commandments, for He has expunged all doubts from your heart.  Now He will see if you love Him and if you will desire to be close to Him and to perform His commandments."  Similarly, all usages of the term "nisayon" mean trail or test…God has shown you His glory, which He did not do for any other nation, to test whether you will repay the kindness by becoming His special people…the nations are not indebted to Me like you are, for I have known you face to face.


For the Ramban, then, the term "NaSot" means "test" as it means elsewhere, and it indicates a challenge to the people NOW:  having removed from their hearts all doubt, God now can test their commitment.  Although the Ramban introduces the idea without fanfare, it is in fact a remarkable reading.  We are conditioned to think from early on that our most pressing problem in overcoming commitment to the Torah is intellectual faith.  If only we could really believe that God exists, that He is aware and cares, that the Torah truly is the communication of His will, then we would accept it wholeheartedly and we would observe its tenets.  If only we could be absolutely certain of God's presence in our lives, then we could transform our hearts to serve Him with sincerity.  But, says the Ramban, that is not necessarily the case.  At Sinai, the people stood and heard God's voice in an experience that we can scarcely begin to fathom.  At that transcendent moment when God spoke to them, every lingering intellectual doubt concerning Him was eradicated.  Who could fail to believe in His existence and involvement when confronted by the spectacle of Sinai and by the sound of His shattering voice?  No, says the Ramban, at that timeless moment all disbelief vanished, all doubt dissipated, and all skepticism was swept away.





But, he continues, that was only the BEGINNING of the people's faith trial: "God desired to test you to see whether you will now keep His commandments, for He has expunged all doubts from your heart.  NOW He will see if you love Him and if you will desire to be close to Him and to perform His commandments."  In other words, though we like to think that certainty constitutes the end of the faith process, it is really only the BEGINNING.  One who possesses intellectual certainty about God will not necessarily keep His commands!  There is a great distance indeed to be traversed between the head and the heart, and Moshe thus tells the people that Sinai represents only the first halting step towards developing true commitment.


But is the Ramban perhaps not also suggesting the converse of the above principle?  After all, most of us do not have the luxury of having achieved utter and complete intellectual belief in God so that we can ponder the presumed next stage.  But by de-linking intellectual certainty from sincere commitment, however, the words of the Ramban now resonate with particular poignancy: if intellectual certainty in God's existence will not necessarily translate into heightened performance of God's laws, then one might presumably be able to achieve sincere devotion to the Torah and to its commandments even if intellectual certainty is lacking! After all, the latter in and of itself cannot anywise nurture absolute trust!  Thus, the human heart may be resilient enough to serve God even when our faith in God is strained and taxed to the limit, even when belief eludes us, even when certainty is nowhere to be found.  And that, in essence, is Sinai's most enduring message – if we wait for true faith in God to be imposed by some sort of miraculous display or Divine fait, then we wait in vain.  Instead, it is within our power to inculcate that faith ourselves, by living lives of meaning and commitment. 


In effect, that is the effect of juxtaposing the Decalogue to Yitro and to Amalek.  Amalek does not doubt God's existence in the world or His role in the Exodus, but rather decries its implications.  Amalek's, then, is an extreme "faith" of formulas that has not an ounce of spiritual depth or commitment. Yitro, in contrast, cements his certainty in God's absoluteness by casting his lot with the people of Israel and by adopting their ways.  For him, the commitment to God's laws represents the shortest path to achieving faith in His ways.  How fitting indeed that his example serves as the introduction to the most pivotal event in our history.  


Shabbat Shalom