This week’s parsha, “Yitro,” climaxes with the nothing less than the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Everything about this portion is Grandiose, with a capital G. Yet, last night, while wading through the Spectacle and the Awe, I found myself being less and less interested in the big stuff, and more interested in the personal, or intimate relationship between Creator and Created.
Ultimately, I found myself coming back to a single image.
As it happens, I have seen mountains on fire, covered in smoke. It’s one of the assortment of natural disasters that afflicts Los Angeles from time to time. When normally tan hills turn into sheets of liquid, red-orange tongues of fire, that is truly spectacular, in the worst way. It is awe-some, in the worst way. It is absolutely Biblical.
But the image or motif that stuck with me was how the mountain was juxtaposed with or compared to a kiln. In the Orthodox translation I read from, the word was furnace. Kiln – furnace – oven – there are small shades of difference between them, but I think the substance is close enough. (I don’t know how the original Hebrew reads.)
At the risk of asking an obvious question, what actually happens in a kiln? Wet clay, essentially shaped mud, is put under fire and turned into a practical art: pottery. What happens in a blast furnace? Iron ore is melted down and re-created as steel. What happens in a oven? Raw ingredients assembled in specific proportions, become edible food. At the risk of suggesting that anything is “like what happened on Mount Sinai,” the interior kiln-furnace-oven is an area of creation, that is strictly off-limits to humans.
In this portion, Moses is constantly going up and down the mountain, and he is the only one allowed to pass; the punishment for anyone else, including animals, is death.
I admit that I really struggled with this. I come back to Maimonides’ Second Principle of Faith. G-d is a Unity. But here in this verse, G-d sets aside who can go into the Mountain; G-d sets aside both a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). If I live by Torah, am I not part of the kingdom of priests, and a holy nation? There’s only one Moses. Why am I not allowed to climb the mountain? I am being kept out, not drawn in.
I cannot set a mountain on fire. I can, however, make an object from clay and put it inside a kiln-furnace-oven. I can take that object out when the cook is done. But I can never be physically present, inside the kiln, inside the moment of creation. I have to trust that there is a process going on inside the furnace, too. I can study the process and I can practice the process, but the truth is that the fire and clay and kiln have to be left alone.
If the process of Creation is sacred, the act of Creating is also sacred. I noticed my translations used both pure and sacred interchangeably and I am still wrestling with whether I agree with that. (Can’t an obsession with purity, become itself profane? In other words, purity is a negative value, whereas sacredness seeks to elevate – it is additive. Maybe?)
A sacred thing is special or separated or raised to a standard beyond. But I don’t think that’s the same as being flawless. I can spend hours shaping clay, and the fire of the kiln can still break it; I don’t think the broken pot is less sacred for being shattered. It’s not as useful, it’s not what I wanted it to be – but that would not, in my view, make it “less than.”
There are steep limits to human control.
At this point in the story, the Israelites are being put through their own collective firing process. The Exodus out of Egypt is really a step into a new kiln. The Israelites are starting as one shape, a loose collection, and being transformed into a holy nation, with priests and other complex hierarchies.
One other angle I considered was that pottery and-or metallurgy were essential work to the Israelites, but also relatively plain work. Turning a mountain into fire and clouds is not a reasonable ambition for me; I can learn how to shape rock and dirt, and those shaped-objects can ultimately save my life.
Why shouldn’t a kiln or furnace be as sacred as anywhere else?
I can’t help but wonder something like this. Even if the Great Events on Mount Sinai are remote to me, that doesn’t mean I am absent or excluded from sacredness. What if G-d desires me to see not just the Majestic Terror-Awe, but also the little details that make up my day and are right in front of me?
One unrelated thought: I could spend a semester-length amount of time on Exodus alone. This particular portion is extraordinary, but the whole thing – wow. Just, wow.