Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 7 June 2019
The festival of Shavuot is known as z’man mattan torateinu – the season of the giving of the Torah. Unlike its companion pilgrim festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, Shavuot in the Torah is not linked with a ‘historical’ moment in Israel’s history. In the Torah, it is an agricultural festival, celebrating the harvest of the first fruits. It is only in post-biblical literature that the link is made between Sinai and Shavuot, hence the festival Torah reading of the arrival of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness and the Aseret Ha-Dibrot – the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.
This text requires interpretation for the progressive Jew. The Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the commandments on Sinai form the centre-piece of the Torah and a consistent reference point in the rest of the Hebrew Bible and in our liturgy. And while we may read this account in the context of its original authorship and in the light of subsequent Jewish interpretation, we have an obligation to learn what it means to us today and to transmit the text meaningfully to future generations, mindful that there are many frames of reference, a plurality of contexts in which we can read texts from Tanakh.
In recent years, at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, we have substituted the traditional Haftarah of Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot and divine throne for verses from Isaiah 42. These verses come from a series of ‘poetic excerpts’ in Isaiah 42-53 known as the ‘Servant Poems’ and have been variously interpreted in Jewish tradition to refer to the Jewish people, afflicted and suffering at the hand of her oppressors or as a Jewish messianic figure still to come.
Placing Isaiah 42 next to Exodus 20, we see another dimension of the revelation at Mount Sinai, an aspect that has more significance for us as progressive Jews who must read the text of this revelation symbolically.
In Exodus 19, the people arrive at the foot of the mountain; morning dawns; thunder, lightning and dense cloud envelop the mountain. The sound of the Shofar blasts loudly as ‘God comes down upon it in fire.’ There is some kind of antiphonal to-ing and fro-ing between God and Moses: ‘As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder’ and the people are warned of the danger of going too close to the mountain.
Now let’s look at Isaiah to see what light it sheds on these verses from Exodus. ‘This is my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one, in whom I delight’ (Isaiah 42:1). God speaks to Israel in the first person:
- ‘I the Eternal One have called you in righteousness, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement… I am the Eternal One, that is My name’ (verses 6-8).
There is a similarity with the opening of the Ten Commandments: ‘I the Eternal One am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage’ (Exodus 20:1). Many commentators ask what is the commandment behind this apparent statement? The answer can be found in Isaiah. Just as God brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, so too Israel, the Jewish people are to bring out (l’hotzi – the Hebrew verb in Isaiah is the same as the verb in Exodus) prisoners from their confinement and from the ‘prison house’ – mi-beyt kele – Isaiah also uses the word bayit, as does the Exodus verse when it refers to the ‘house of bondage.’
This revelation that lies at the heart of the Torah, of our liturgy and daily existence, calls for a response and it is Deutero-Isaiah who dictates what that response should be – our liberation demands a duty from us to liberate others deprived of their freedom.
There are further echoes: Ani Adonai, hu sh’mi, u’ch’vodi l’acher lo-etein, u’tehillati la’p’silim – ‘I am the Eternal One, that is my name; I will not give my glory to another, nor my renown to idols’ (Isaiah 42:8). Compare the words of the second commandment: Lo yiheyeh l’cha elohim acherim al panay: Lo ta’aseh l’cha fesel v’chol temunah – ‘You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below’ (Exodus 20:3-4). Is it possible that the prophet consciously echoes two key words from the second commandment that refer to idolatry – acherim – ‘you shall have no other gods besides me’ when he says ‘I will not give my glory l-acher – to another…?’ and pesel – ‘sculptured image’, as it says, ‘nor my renown [or my praise] to idols [or graven images].’ Isaiah links the second commandment, prohibiting other gods or any graven image to be made or served, with the third commandment: Lo tissa et shem Adonai eloheycha la-shav – ‘You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Eternal One your God.’ God’s very being, His presence and name, cannot be cast in the form of an idol; it cannot exist in any material form. God’s existence and presence are unique and without corporeality.
What is the meaning of this apparent appropriation of the language of the Exodus passage? However difficult the concept of chosenness is for us today, God’s election of his servant Israel, a covenant people, is not a simple, arbitrary choice. In an exclusive and particularistic sense, the Jewish people are singled out for one purpose only and that purpose is sounded in ringing tones throughout Isaiah: mishpat la-goyim – justice for the nations. Actually, says the prophet, you won’t need to shout from the rooftops, you won’t need to storm around like a man of war, like a jealous God who wants his people for himself and cannot tolerate His people lusting after other gods, for your strength will remain unbroken and with gentleness and quietness will you teach the way of justice and righteousness to the nations. You will teach by way of example, because you are My servant, my chosen one, the one in whom I delight, and in whom I have breathed my spirit.
It is a remarkable contrast to the shudderings and shakings of Mount Sinai – a God who displays his force with smoke and mirrors, thunder and lightning. The prophet takes another stance: God’s servant, Israel, shall not cry out or shout aloud, or make his voice heard in the streets. His gentleness will be such that he will not even break an already bruised reed or extinguish a flickering candle (42:3).
So, in the light of Isaiah, we can read Exodus quite differently. The imagery of convulsive nature giving birth to the Ten Commandments on the mountain is a powerful symbol of revelation. But it is only an image, a symbol. We are not required to read the description of Sinai literally. As for the commandments, they are the moral and religious prescriptions that lie at the heart of our religion. Isaiah in those few verses takes the particular relationship that we have with God through the covenant and turns it around as if to say: from that exclusive relationship, you have a duty to the world, to be a ‘light to the nations.’ Be mindful of my presence and my teachings at all times and go out and bring freedom and dignity to all my creation, for it is for this purpose that I have called you to be My servant, My chosen one in whom I delight.
Share this Thought for the Week