Torah Talk on Behar-Bechukotai 5780
This week we read the sedrah of Behar-Bechukotai, the double portion at the end of the book of Leviticus. In these final sections of the middle book of the Torah there are interesting oddities—and lessons—both at the beginning and the end of each portion.
Behar begins with the statement that “God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying”, a seemingly unambiguous phrase. And at the end of the opening covenantal section of Bechukotai the Torah reiterates that God gave all the regulations and laws contained here at Mt. Sinai. Finally, Bechukotai concludes the book of Vayikra by telling us “these are the commandments that God commanded Moses for the Israelites on Mt. Sinai”.
All well and good. These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have been commanded at Mt. Sinai.
Yet earlier in Leviticus it makes it pretty clear that God has given most of these commandments not at Mt. Sinai itself, but in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Ohel Mo’eid, the Tent of Meeting, as the people wander around. In fact, the whole book of Leviticus is apparently given after we have left Sinai and begun our journey to the Promised Land. Clearly, as Behar begins the Israelites don’t actually seem to still be at Mt. Sinai at all.
The question troubles the rabbinic commentators, who believe that the Torah never wastes a phrase, or makes a mistake. Their rather brilliant answer teaches us a profound truth about ourselves.
In the rabbinic understanding Mt. Sinai is not just a geographical location, not a simple matter of a specific place at all. Wherever we learn and do mitzvot, whenever we complete ethical acts, do tzedakah, observe religious rituals with sanctity and meaning, study Torah, or work to perfect the world through tikun olam, wherever and whenever we strive to make the world a holier, more Jewish place, we are standing at Mt. Sinai.
Almost literally, as committed Jews we take Mt. Sinai with us, and bring God’s very presence into the world. It’s a powerful message indeed.
As we conclude the book of Leviticus, focused fully on creating holiness, we learn that we can make our own lives as holy as the revelation at Mt. Sinai simply by studying and living Torah each day. May we remember to do so today.