Parshas Yisro: You are Never Alone

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 02/02/18

At the conclusion of the detailed description of all that transpired at the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah concludes with a seemingly random listing of several laws mostly unrelated to the event of the giving of the Torah. The first directive is to prohibit the fashioning of any images of heavenly bodies or forces. This is reiterated by the fact that G-d showed His presence at Mount Sinai directly to us without any intermediaries. The next instruction is to construct an Altar in the Tabernacle composed from ‘earth’ that will suffice for the bringing of the offerings upon it to G-d. It goes on to relate that when the Temple will be built, its Altar may be composed of stones, though it may not be cut with iron tools. Finally it describes how steps may not be constructed, only a ramp, for ascending to the top of the Altar, since raising one’s legs as one goes up steps would  expose one’s private parts, while rising up a  ramp allows for the legs to move more evenly and subtly with less exposure.

On this last detail Rabbi Yishmael comments in the Mechilta that the issue here can’t simply be about exposure of their private parts since the Kohanim who served there wore michnasayim, the pants that were an integral component of their requisite garments of service. Rather he asserts the Torah’s intention is that those serving in the Temple should avoid taking a פסיעה גסה, crude and strident steps, and should rather walk with humility, aligning עקב בצד גודל, one’s right heel aside one’s left large toe, continuing to shuffle forward by then aligning the left heel to the right toe, methodically moving forward with modest and humble steps.   

Yet the Torah states clearly that the objective in building a ramp as opposed to steps is so that לא תגלה ערותך עליו, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it. But according to Rabbi Yishmael there is no problem of exposure due to their wearing of pants, so how are we to understand this call for humility being expressed as an avoidance of revealing our nakedness?

The expression גילוי עריות, literally revealing our nakedness, is the metaphor the Torah uses to describe transgressing prohibited intimate relationships. The Talmud indeed states that one who is arrogant is deemed guilty as if he had violated every single prohibited relationship in the Torah.(סוטה ד:)

What is the possible correlation between the expression of a haughty attitude and the committing of acts of promiscuity?

The very first message post Sinai that G-d seeks to convey is that He is accessible and always present. The same G-d who revealed His presence at Mount Sinai lovingly tells us there is no need for intermediaries to access His attention, ‘I am always here’, G-d beckons us.

Rav S.R. Hirsch explains that the call for an Altar of ‘earth’ represents a summons to man to elevate all earthly things up to Me. When you wish to come to Me, you have not to represent things that you imagine are with Me in heaven, but rather to ponder on how I wish things to be carried by you on earth. It is the earth not heaven that concerns you if and when you wish to come near to Me. The altar you build up to Me should represent the earth raised up to G-d by Men’s deeds, Men’s action... Hence it is not heaven, but the earth,raised up towards G-d, which is to in our minds when we wish to step near to G-d.

The disqualification of an altar fashioned from hewn stone is because “you have swung your sword over it and desecrated it.  The Ramban explains that the instrument associated with the despised Esav, whose legacy is symbolized by the sword, ועל חרבך תחיה (בראשית כז מ), by the sword shall you live, has no place in the House of G-d.

The sword is wielded by those who arrogantly claim to determine their own destiny independent of G-d, arrogating supremacy by the power of their guile, force and strength alone.

Moshe in his closing blessing to the Children of Israel extols אשריך ישראל מי כמוך עם נושע בד' מגן עזרך ואשר חרב גאותך (דברים לג כט), Fortunate are you , O Israel; Who is like you! O people delivered by G-d, the Shield of your help, Who is the Sword of your grandeur...

The Holy Kedushas Levi, Reb Levi Yitzchok of Barditchov interprets this verse as a counterpoint to the sword of Esav. Our sword; our pride, lays in the fact that we are the עם נושע בד', the people delivered by G-d Himself, in stark contrast to the delusional pride and false self-confidence of the haughty Esav.

The saintly Reb Moshe Kubriner writes: Our pride is found in the knowledge of our being delivered by G-d alone. In every moment a Jew must discover inner strength in the notion that his salvation is contingent solely in G-d, and that one is a son of the King and close to Him. It is unbecoming to walk in a state of melancholy, allowing oneself to be defeated by the challenges of the moment, but rather one must be constantly in a state of joy, for G-d will surely provide all that we need.

When we rid ourselves of the misguided sense of self-determination, the weapon of Esav, and humbly submit ourselves to G-d’s control, that is the moment we attain His utter protection and embracing blessings.

Man instinctively pines for connection; it is wired into our souls. The need to find personal validation and achieve meaningful existence is the basis for all relationships. Ultimately the most intimate connection is the relationship we have with G-d. All other relationships are only so meaningful and fulfilling as they reflect the presence of G-d as well.

The more one lives with the awareness of His presence in every facet of our experience the more likely one will be equipped to avoid the pitfall of searching for personal validation in artificial associations that merely feed our ego but fail to stoke our souls.

So often the draw towards promiscuity, physically satisfying relationships void of meaning, stems from man’s state of utter loneliness that desperately seeks some feeling, however empty, of connection. But it inevitably always leads to greater isolation and misery.

The arrogant are the loneliest of people. They may succeed temporarily in rallying fellowship through charisma, wealth or power but due to their inability to value anyone more than themselves and their refusal to honestly appraise and work on their own deficiencies, are doomed to becoming more and more isolated and resorting to ever more depraved means for artificial connection.

The very first display of a consciousness of being naked is after Adam and Chava partook from the Tree of Knowledge. The Torah reports how G-d inquires of  Adam as to where he is and why is he hiding and Adam responds, ואירא כי עירם אנכי (בראשית ג י), and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.

In this first display of arrogant ‘self-determination’ man discovers he is exposed and naked.

The Holy Arizal directs us to the verse in Psalms אל תבואני רגל גאוה (תהלים לו יב), Let not come to me the foot of arrogance, and the assertion of the Midrash that this was the Tree of Knowledge’s admonition, calling out to refrain from partaking of its fruit in violation of G-d’s directive. The first letters, the Arizal points out, spells אתרג, the Esrog which was the forbidden fruit.

When man seeks independence from G-d he will quickly discover his utter nakedness and shame, coming to realize that one who deems himself smart and independent will find how powerless and empty he really is.    

Arrogance is a robe that merely hides one’s true weakness.

The succumbing to contrived connection is simply the consequence of the folly of living with a false sense of power, pride and determination. The result is an empty sense of naked shame and the realization of one’s admitted weakness.

The Meor V’Shemesh, brilliantly interprets Adam’s response that he feared, כי 'עירם' אנכי, not to mean, because I was naked, but rather in the context of the word עירם which can alternately be translated as ‘clever’ or ‘wise’. Adam admitted that he feared his yielding to the pitfall of his own personal cleverness, having lapsed in the consciousness of man’s constant need for his greatest supporter - G-d.

When we haughtily succumb to our false sense of power we are doomed to uncovering are true nakedness.

Within these seemingly tangential verses lays the most vital of messages; G-d remains present in our lives just as He was at Mount Sinai, and is easily accessible. We must just never allow arrogance to blind us from that reality. With that awareness we will never have to wander in search of misguided and dangerous connections.

I saw a magnificent chassidic interpretation on these last verses in our portion in the name of the renowned Posek, Rav Yisroel Dovid Harpenes:

You shall not ascend My Altar on steps - one should never think that one must always be engaged in a constant process of success in the ascension upon  the steps of achievement on the altar of avodas Hashem, serving G-d. True service of G-d requires a course of successes and failures, but one must always know that even when one falls G-d is there cheering one on.

so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it - because if one forgets this important message one is likely get discouraged and sense alienation from G-d, resorting to his own devices and eventually discover how naked he really is.

May we take the lesson of Sinai with us in every endeavor in life. He is ‘here’; He believes in each one of us; He is prodding us to experience the most exquisite of connections - a bond with the Almighty Himself!


צבי יהודה טייכמאן