Monday, February 4, 2013

Mount Sinai and the Temple

In describing the episode of the Revelation at Mount Sinai in last week's parshah, the Torah identifies a number of different areas of the mountain:

  • "The foot of the mountain" (Exodus 19:17) where the people gathered.
  • "The top of the mountain" (v.20) where God descended.
  • "The cloud" (v.18) where Moses entered.
  • "The thickness of the cloud" (v.19) where God came and spoke to Moses.

Rabbeinu Bechayai (to Exodus 19:17) notes that these four areas comprised four distinct levels of sanctity, each one successively higher than the previous one. The people at large were barred from entering beyond the foot of the mountain while Moses was permitted to ascend to the highest level, within the thickness of the cloud. Rabbeinu Bechayai then matches these four areas to sections of the Temple which also demonstrated increasing holiness, as follows:

  • "The foot of the mountain" is the gate of the Courtyard (i.e., the area just outside the main Courtyard, on the Temple Mount).
  • "The top of the mountain" is the Courtyard.
  • "The cloud" is the Sanctuary Building.
  • "The thickness of the cloud" is the Holy of Holies.

In truth, the Temple is comprised of more than four areas (Keilim 1:8-9 lists the eight distinct levels of sanctity within the Temple). It is therefore instructive that Rabbeinu Bechayai should specify the four which he gives here. Of interest to me is that he should match the "foot of the mountain" (the place beyond which the Jews could not enter at Mount Sinai) with the Temple Mount, because Israelites could enter even further into the Temple – i.e., into the Courtyard itself – when they were tahor (and the Jews at the time of the Revelation took pains to ensure that they were, in fact, tahor). The only people restricted to the Temple Mount were those contaminated with corpse tumah, and non-Jews. It would have been more accurate to match the "foot of the mountain" with the Israelites' Courtyard, say, which was generally the furthest that most people could go in the Temple.

One possible explanation is to suggest that our status changed in a meaningful way through the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Although we were definitely "Jewish" and had been for many hundreds of years, there is a difference between Jews who have received the Torah and Jews who have not. Until we underwent that historic spiritual transformation, we were, to a certain extent, not elevated enough to be permitted into the more hallowed ground of Sinai's "Courtyard."

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