The experience of watching my block engulfed in smoke and fire last Shabbat set the stage for Parshat Yitro in a unique fashion. The Decalogue is framed (at 19:18 and then 20:15) by descriptions of the fire on Mount Sinai, which seems to become a volcano before the terrified eyes of Israel. Classical midrashim compare the Torah to fire—it burns those who are too close, but warms those who are farther off; so too Torah study requires careful attention. A small fire ignites a larger one, and so too even a minor disciple can teach Torah to a great scholar. The commentary Or HaHayim understands the puzzling description that the people “saw the sounds” as a physical reality—as Mount Sinai burned, its stones were liquified, and the melting mountain made terrible sounds that terrified the people.
In the aftermath, the people stood back, afraid of the divine presence, but Moses entered the inferno, like the brave FDNY men whom I watched last Saturday climb up ladders and stand on the roof of a burning building while our neighborhood watched in dread from the street below. The Hasidic writer of Likkutei Maharil (R. Judah Leib, of the Rabbinic Court of Zakikob, not to be confused with Maharil, the fourteenth century German halakhist, Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin), says that the people focused on the eternal reality of flames and smoke, while Moses alone was able to perceive the “ikkar,” the divine presence. He recounts a story of a great Zaddik who spent an hour of intense meditation one Sukkot before blessing the lulav. All the people were focused on the Zaddik’s meditation, but the writer realized that the main thing was to listen to his blessing at the end. The point is to look not at the external reality but the internal transformation that is masked from view. Continue reading