Skip to main content

Behar, Everest and Vistas

It is curious that the laws dealing with the land, namely the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, are introduced by the words. “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai…” (Leviticus 25)   Why does the Torah emphasize “on Mount Sinai”?

Why emphasize that these particular laws were given on Sinai? The commentaries offer different explanations. One suggests that because in the moment that the Torah was given, when the Jewish people stood as one, at Mount Sinai, no one owned any land. The laws that follow deal with a visionary system in which we are required to allow the land to rest on the seventh year and on the fiftieth year for all debts to be forgiven. Such demands necessitate ownership. The Torah therefore emphasizes that at one point we were without land and owned nothing.

Another commentator suggests: “Just as Sinai was the smallest of the mountains but the words spoken there changed the world, so the people Israel, among the smallest of the nations, presents a vision of social justice that has the power to change the world.” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary) The tradition makes much of the fact that Mount Sinai was an ordinary and perhaps even insignificant mountain. It was however transformed into holy ground by the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Still I wonder what is about mountains that so captures our imaginations? Why do so many for example attempt to scale Everest’s heights? Why do people wish to conquer taller and taller mountains? Such attempts too often end in tragedy. Any trail that leads through a “death zone” should offer hint enough that tragedy can strike and that the greater the heights the more extraordinary the risk. Recently thirteen Sherpas lost their lives. These remarkable individuals were aiding others so that they could in turn claim, “I summited Everest.” And yet I remain transfixed by this tragedy.

Once I spent a week hiking through the Sinai desert. We were led through that wilderness by Bedouin guides. Eventually we ascended what local Arab tradition deemed Jabal Mousa, the Mount of Moses. We were told that this was Mount Sinai. It was a rather nondescript mountain. Still the climb was thrilling. The summit however was anticlimactic. Atop the mountain we could purchase sodas from Egyptian vendors. They apparently made their way to the mountain’s top each and every morning in order to sell sodas to thirsty foreigners.

And then and there I realized that mountains might better left to the eye and the imagination. In fact Jewish tradition does not ascribe Jabal Musa as Mount Sinai. It refuses to name which mountain is in fact Sinai. One could say this is because we can no longer determine which mountain it in fact is. Then again sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. Mountains are better left to eye. And mountain tops are better left to the imagination. It is better to look up at their majesty and from that view to allow the imagination to foster inspiration.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth….” (Psalm 121)