By Tom Breidenthal
In today’s reading from Exodus, we join the Israelites who have just escaped from slavery in Egypt. They are now encamped in the wilderness at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they are about to receive the law.
Moses conveys God’s promise to the people. If they obey him, they will be his treasured people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. And the people all answer as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
As you can imagine, the Jewish tradition is bursting with close readings and commentaries about this passage and the continued declaration of the Law, which the people receive in fear and trembling. But if we read today’s passage alone, we would not realize the people were afraid. We would suppose they were eager to obey God and to enter into a deep and abiding relationship with the Holy One — the One who had rescued them from bondage in Egypt.
Yet we know, if we read further, that the Israelites struggled with a profound ambivalence about God, even a mistrust of God. It did not take much time before they accused God of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. They longed to return to Egypt, where at least they had enough to eat.
Throughout history, rabbis have been fascinated with this dynamic: on the one hand, gratitude to God for rescue; on the other hand, distrust of God and fear of moving forward.
A key midrash or commentary on this dynamic arises out of today’s passage.
But before we get into that, a word about midrash. In the ancient rabbinical tradition, the way to understand God’s Word in Scripture is to pry it open, to notice the silence between the words, and to see in the silence an invitation into a hidden world, a terrain where the Word of God can be wrestled with. That is to say, the rabbis find places in the scriptural text where an additional story, an unspoken narrative, can be inserted. The additional story is the midrash, the commentary.
Furthermore, the midrash is never the work of one rabbi: one rabbi inserts a story, and then other rabbis, sometimes for centuries, talk back and forth about it. Commentary is conversation.
So that brings us to today’s passage from Exodus. The place in this passage that has produced a rich rabbinic conversation is humdrum enough at first glance: “Israel camped in front of the mountain.” (This is Mt. Sinai, of course). But in the Hebrew, this can be translated as “in front of the mountain,” or “at the foot of the mountain,” and even “beneath the mountain.”
And here, starting with Abdimi bar Hama bar Hasa, probably early in the Common Era, we have the following midrash from tractate Shabbat of the Talmud: “[That the children of Israel of Israel encamped beneath the mountain] teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, inclined the mountain over them like a tilted tub, and that He said, if you accept the Torah [that is, the Law], all is well. If not, here will be your grave.” Meaning, if you accept my will for you, you will be fine. If you don’t, I am going to drop this mountain on you.
The real point of this midrash is that it invites us to take the people’s positive and seemingly eager response to God’s law with a grain of salt. “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Do they really mean it, or are they just afraid?
Perhaps. But if this all that is going wrong, we have a problem. If the giving of the law seems to be accompanied by a threat, then it calls into question the goodness of God and the integrity of God’s people. Surely the law is addressed directly to our hearts, as a basis for us to live into the restorative justice and mercy God calls us to and equips us for.
So something else must be going on in this midrash, for certainly it is not saying that the children of Israel carried on toward the promised land simply out of the fear of God.
Here’s what I think, with the help of others. The idea of Mt. Sinai suspended over the people is a way of reminding us that freedom is not ultimately something we achieve on our own, but something thrust upon us and demanded of us, even before we can understand what it really is.
It is the freedom to be totally open to God and to the neighbor, as Jesus makes so abundantly clear. We do not make our own freedom. We receive it from others to use it for others. However bravely we develop and employ it, it always has been given to us from someone else, and ultimately, I believe, from God through them.
So back to the Sinai midrash. I came to know it through the work of a great Talmudic scholar and philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, a survivor of the Holocaust to whom I was introduced by Professor Borowitz, a rabbinical scholar I had the privilege of teaching with in New York.
Levinas could see that this midrash seemed to portray the children of Israel as being coerced by God into being his people.
For Levinas, this is not the point of the midrash. It goes deeper than that. To obey God is to find true freedom. Levinas calls this “difficult freedom,” inasmuch as it is freedom from having to have our own way, even as we are thus freed to be who God created us to be: individuals subordinated to and formed for the disciplines of mercy and justice.
Can we make this difficult freedom our own? Surely we must try to do so, as we endeavor to make the tangled and rocky story of the Israelites a model for our own. What does difficult freedom mean for us?
It seems to me that what the rabbis are trying to say is that God’s call — God’s demand, if we put it more strongly — is the only basis for freedom we have in the first place. Apart from God’s grace and the moral law, whatever little freedom we have is paltry. We can push and push to get done what we want to get done, but in the end we have no control over where it will go. Our efforts, whether for our families, our neighborhoods, our church, have no hope of going anywhere if they are not in service to the living God, and to the neighbor in God’s name.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist practice of detachment — perhaps because the other day I had a wonderful conversation with my lifelong friend, a Lutheran turned Buddhist. He asked me how I was, and I said that in the midst of the world’s pandemic and our nation’s terrible pain I was standing in the need of some detachment. He said detachment is not about separation. It is about being more present to truth.
This remark has caused me, quite belatedly, to reconsider what Buddhists mean by detachment. It is not detachment from the world, still less from the problems that assail us. It is detachment from our own agenda, from having our way. This is not about quenching feeling, but letting our hearts be enlarged in compassion for what surrounds us, whether we had planned on it or not. It is not about being more distant from the things that really matter, but more present to them.
This in no way means putting up with violence either against others or ourselves, or not fighting with every fiber against infectious disease. But it does mean fighting with wills freed from personal gain and personal safety at the expense of others. Detachment from our own agenda, however we can achieve that, is the key to moving forward into the Promised Land, rather than retreating into Egypt.
The best — and probably the only — way to achieve detachment from our selfish drives is to learn to talk with one another about where we are coming from. The only way forward for us as Republicans, Democrats, independents, kids, adults, sure and unsure about our faith, inspired and angry, grief-stricken and hopeful, confident and afraid, is to listen to one another with respect and tell our own story in return. This and only this will make us a body of disciples able to stand against the forces of division and disrespect that continue to plague our land. The conversation across political and racial lines must start here.
That will be hard work, but the world needs us to be doing that work, right now, right here. It is the work Jesus models everywhere in the gospels, and which the Holy Spirit gives us voice and ears for. And it is the mountain of God’s holy will that hangs over us, not to crush us, but to remind us that the only true freedom we have is to do God’s will as ministers of God’s justice and mercy.
Then we can say, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom.”
The Rt. Rev. Tom Breidenthal is the retired Bishop of Southern Ohio.