PARSHAT BEHAR BEHUKOTAI
“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.” (Leviticus 25:1)
Whenever I conduct an unveiling (the dedication of a memorial stone), I begin with the Biblical passage, “I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come” (Psalms 121:1). There is something about mountains that turns our hearts towards God. Many religious faiths worship mountains. In Japan, Mt. Fuji is a destination for pilgrims. In Alaska, the highest peak in North America had its name changed from Mt McKinley to Denali out of respect to the mountain’s holiness to Alaska natives. Ancient Greeks saw their gods dwelling on Mount Olympus. And the Sherpas of Nepal worship the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest. There is a deep sense among humans that there is something holy about mountains.
I have always been fascinated by the role of mountains in the human imagination. (This is a strange irony since I live in Florida, the nation’s lowest, flattest state.) When I was young, I read many books about expeditions to Mt. Everest. In the early years of my Rabbinate, I heard that Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), the first man to climb Mt. Everest with his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, was giving a lecture in my community. I had to go.
When I walked into the lecture, members of my synagogue saw me. “What are you doing here? Why would a rabbi come to a lecture on mountaineering?” I guess they thought rabbis were one-dimensional, only interested in Jewish topics. I am interested in multiple issues. Besides, I find something deeply spiritual about ascending a mountain. Before Hillary, George Mallory (1886-1924) who died trying to climb Everest, famously said when asked why, “Because it is there.”
Allow me to share another memory from my youth. When I was in college, I spent a summer travelling through Europe and Israel with a pack on my back. (I cannot believe my parents allowed me to go.) One place I needed to see was the town of Zermatt, Switzerland, at the foot of the Matterhorn. Maybe it was the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, or maybe it was the 1959 Disney movie Third Man on the Mountain which I loved as a child, but I had to lay eyes on the Matterhorn. I went hiking to the base, sat in a café with a beer, and stared at the beautiful mountain.
This week’s portion is named after a mountain, Mt. Sinai. It is the place God chose to give us the Torah. Where is Mt. Sinai? In truth, scholars do not know. Many Christians and Muslims identify it with a mountain outside the ancient monastery of Santa Caterina, in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. When Sinai was in Israeli hands, I travelled to Santa Caterina with a group of Rabbinical students. We left in darkness in order to reach the summit as the sun was rising, where we put on tallit and tefillin and said our morning prayers. I could imagine Moses standing at that spot receiving the Ten Commandments.
This week’s portion is named after Mt. Sinai. And in two weeks we will celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah. We will imagine an entire people standing at the foot of a mountain receiving God’s revelation. Perhaps because a mountain is closer to God, it is a perfect place to feel God’s presence. We know God is everywhere. But there is something about a mountain that moves our hearts in a more spiritual direction. That is why God chose a mountain to give us the Torah.
I have often said that God does not dwell in nature. God is the author of nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalms 19:2). Mountains can be places of great holiness, but also of great danger and fear. It is hard to think about Mt. Everest without considering Jon Krakauer’s haunting 1997 book Into Thin Air. It describes the tragedy that occurred on Mt. Everest the previous year. Nature can be beautiful and inspiring, but nature can also be scary and malevolent. And mountains can be scary places.
Nonetheless, we humans have always found holiness on mountaintops. God led us out from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where we received God’s Torah. Mountains will always remain places of inspiration for us humans.