Mount Sinai was all in Smoke
By Menachem Mendelsohn
In the portion of the Torah that describes the giving of the Torah, Exodus 19:18, Mount Sinai is described as "altogether in smoke". The actual quote of the verse is:
"And Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire, and the smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the whole mountain quaked greatly."
Although this verse describes Mount Sinai being enveloped in smoke since G-d had descended upon it in fire, we do not find that Mount Sinai itself was burning, at least the Torah does not relate to us that it was burning. Rather just that it was smoking like a hot furnace.
This is a bit strange since Mount Sinai was in the middle of a desert and there is very little vegetation on the mountains in these areas that if they were to burn it would give off much smoke. There are no trees, no building structures, and no oil wells that could cause a large plume of smoke like that of a large and hot furnace. So why is it that Mount Sinai was engulfed in smoke? And this is without it burning. Remember that it was G-d who came down in fire, what was it that burnt? It certainly was not the rock and the sand!
Perhaps these are misleading questions. They are based on simple understanding of what happened and why things happen. We understand that when matter 'burns' it combines with oxygen and it is this process of combustion under the heat of the fire that produce the smoke. But that is following the natural course of events; that is how nature works. But who set up nature that nature should follow such laws? G-d set up these immutable laws.
Let us explain, for a deep concept exists here.
When we say G-d or Lord, we do not really differentiate between the two names. In English, perhaps there is a difference, but in Hebrew there is an important difference between the two common names of G-d: Elohim and the unpronounced name that is represented by the letters YHVH. YHVH really relates to G-d as He really is, it is a composite word made up of the three Hebrew verbs, 'was', 'is', and 'will be' and this is to indicate the infinite aspect of G-d that G-d is, was and will be, and all at the very same time. This means that just as G-d exists beyond the limitations of the worlds, for G-d being the Infinite exists in all worlds, in all spaces, in all times and all at the same time. He exists beyond space and time just as he exists within space and time and yet he is not affected by the happenings and confinements of space and time. That is the name YHVK.
The second name of G-d is that of Elokim, and this is the name that the rabbis tell us has the same numerical equivalent as 'the nature'. Elokim is the name through which nature was created and is constantly maintained - for nature is bound by the rules of space and time, whereas the name YHVH is not. Therefore our normal relationship to G-d is through the name and manifestation of Elokim and not through YHVH. Not because they are two separate entities, G-d forbid, but because we relate to G-d through the world and it is indeed the rare person that can get beyond it. Even still, we pledge each day in the recital of the Sh'ma, "Hear O'Israel, YHVH is Elokainu, YHVH is One." We know that Elokim (Elokanu means our Elokim) is YHVH, but YHVH is too lofty, too distant, too uncomprehending for us to relate to. Our normal relationship is with G-d is as he manifests Himself in the world, Elokim. None the less, the real essence of G-d is YHVH except that we must relate to Him through the name Elokim.
Now when G-d created the world he did it through the name Elokim, the laws of nature. The reason for this is that the name YHVH is the infinite, both in time and space, meaning that all of time, past, present, and future exist at the same moment, and that all space in all places must exist within limitless borders, something that is impossible for our created and time-space bound world can not do. For the finite to come face to face with the infinite is a experience that is beyond our ability to describe since we all live within the limited world. To be faced with a dimensionless infinite scenario, a world with no limits neither in time nor place, would be very frightening to say the least.
As long as we are living under the realm of Elokim, everything must follow the laws of nature. Objects that burn do so because of heat and combustion and only flammable objects burn and give off smoke.
We see also that fire really is not necessary for heating something up, we can use a microwave to heat up food. A microwave works by exciting the food molecules through radio waves. The microwave oven produces these radio type waves and 'excites' the molecules causing rapid molecular movement. The excited molecules begin to move rapidly, this rapid movement is translated into 'heat' since heat generally causes molecules to move rapidly.
When G-d descended down to Mount Sinai, He descended as YHVH for that is the name recorded in the above mentioned verse. This was perceived as a fire, for fire is one of the least physical things in this physical world. The mountain itself which is composed of sand, stone and gravel felt the presence of its creator. Not the creator in its mask and role as Elokim, but a revelation with no mask, no concealment. The revelation was as YHVH the unrevealed aspect of G-d since this was a revelation of the true glory of G-d for the sake of His people that they should receive the Torah from the highest level. This tremendously high level of revelation of G-dliness could not but have an effect upon even the still life, the rock and sand, that inherently recognized their source and root of existence. This had the effect of exciting the molecules of the inert mountain which began to tear loose from the cohesive bond that kept the mountain (and all material intact) and began escaping into the atmosphere. This is perceived as by an onlooker as smoke, since smoke is similar in that it is the particles of the material that is being burnt going into the air.
Why was it necessary for this to take place? Had the revelation been through the name of Elokim, the mountain would not have turned into a plume of dark smoke.
The reason is that G-d in his infinite wisdom wanted the revelation to affect even the most inner parts of the Jews' genes, in order that this revelation could become an inherent part of the Jewish soul which would be transferred from one generation to another just as an inheritance is transferred from the father to the son.
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In reality, this revelation was too fearful for the Jews to really comprehend and assimilate in their psyches as a logical phenomenon. Only the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard by the Jewish nation: "I am YHVH your Elohim" (translated as "I am the Lord your G-d") and "You shall have no other gods before Me". The next eight of the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish nation through Moses who brought down the Ten Commandments engraved on a stone.
In all there are 613 divine commandments. The other commandments, while they have their root in the first two commandments yet were given and have their source coming from when G-d gave us the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, yet they were not fully divulged until a later time as the Jews wandered through the desert through out the forty years.
We can see that there are three levels in the divine commandments that are written in the Torah. The first level is the first two commandments; they were given directly by G-d to the Jewish nation without the aid of Moses. The next level is the remaining eight of the Ten Commandments that were given by G-d through Moses and written in stone at the time of Mount Sinai. These were obvious to the Jews that G-d had given them to Moses because to the tremendous and extraordinary events that happened at this time.
The third and lowest level was the commandments that were finally and eventually revealed as the Jews marched through the desert. Here G-d speaks directly to Moses and tells him that he should relate these divine commandments to the Jews, which of course Moses did.
Now why did we need these three levels?
We need to know that the Torah is not just a history book of a new born nation and their travails in the formative years as they wandered through a desert. The Torah is the book of divine revelations, whether in the form of direct revelation or in the form of divine instruction. We needed to hear the first two commandments from G-d Himself, for we are incapable of understanding the essence of G-d, as explained above YHVH is too far beyond our limited minds to fathom it. Therefore they were given to us directly from G-d; there could be no argument with Moses on the essence of G-d or the meaning. We were and still are incapable of truly comprehending the essence of G-d therefore the first two commandments were given directly from Him, eliminating the need for any intellectual understanding.
The second level was commandments that perhaps we could understand, but yet they are given part as divine revelation and part as divine instruction lest we accept them based on a purely intellectual understanding. The remaining commandments that are enumerated in the Torah are all divine, therefore they all relate back to the first two commandments, but they are also given to our logical understanding and its study.
Therefore, when G-d descended on Mount Sinai to reveal Himself and His holy Torah, the inanimate mountain shook vigorously and trembled. This is a sign for ourselves that if our learning does not bring us into the level of fear and awe that a clod of rock which possesses no mind can achieve, then something is wrong with our learning approach.
When we read the Torah we must consider and keep in mind at all times that this is a divine book. We must treat it will the awe and respect that the word of G-d deserves. Only in this manner can we merit to understand in depth the deeper meanings of the Torah.
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For more on Shavout, see our Holiday Archives
from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine