“Sanctify Them, Today and Tomorrow”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we read of the great Divine Revelation that took place at Mt. Sinai in the year 1313 B.C.E.

In Exodus 19:7, Moses calls the elders of Israel to consult with them regarding whether the people would accept G-d’s word and His Torah. The people, who apparently overheard the exchange, immediately respond (Exodus 19:8): “Kol ah’sher dee’ber Hashem, na’ah’seh,” All that G-d has spoken, we will do!

The Al-mighty then gives Moses instructions for the people to follow in anticipation of the Revelation. Exodus 19:10 reads: “Laych el ha’ahm, v’kee’dash’tahm ha’yom oo’ma’char, v’cheeb’soo sim’lo’tam,” Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their clothing. G-d then tells Moses to inform the people to be prepared for the third day, because on that day G-d will reveal Himself to the entire people at Mt. Sinai. Boundaries are to be established around the mountain, and strict warnings are to be given to the people not to ascend the mountain or even touch its edges, for those who touch the mountain, whether human or beast, shall surely die. Only after the final shofar blast is sounded may the people ascend the mountain once again.

There is a debate among the commentators about what the term “sanctify them” means. According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) it means that the people should refrain from sexual relations so that they will be in an appropriate state of ritual purity for the Revelation. R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) maintains that the people needed to immerse themselves in a mikveh (ritual pool) for spiritual purification. Onkelos (Targum Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible) understands that the people should wash their clothing so they may be properly dressed in honor of the occasion. These three views represent differing opinions regarding whether the people need to cleanse themselves from contamination, to purify themselves mentally and spiritually, or be in the proper frame of mind reflected by wearing appropriate clothing for the occasion.

There is also a difference of opinion between the sages regarding the meaning of the words in Exodus 19:11, “Yom ha’shli’shi,” the third day. R’ Yose in the Talmud, Shabbat 86b, 87a, states that Moses decided on his own, with G-d’s eventual approval, to add an extra day of preparation, even though G-d had originally indicated that two days would suffice. Therefore, according to R’ Yose, the Ten Commandments were given on the seventh of Sivan, not on the sixth. The Sages, however, disagree, and state that the words “three days” mentioned in this verse do not mean that an extra day was added, it is rather a restatement of what G-d had previously said. According to the Sages then, the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan.

One of the popular contemporary commentators, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, in his volume, Al HaTorah, (volume II, page 215), makes an interesting observation regarding the words (Exodus 19:10): “v’kee’dash’tam ha’yom oo’machar,” and you shall sanctify them today and tomorrow. “Today,” at Sinai, says Rabbi Cohen, was easy to accomplish, but “tomorrow” was hard, and is hard.

This wonderfully insightful remark has much to teach us about our abilities to fulfill our own plans and resolutions. “Today,” on the day that the resolution is pronounced, the challenge seems relatively simple. All we need do is put our minds to it, and it will be accomplished. “Today,” when we are in the yeshiva and have the support of the rabbis and our fellow students, it is easy. “Today,” when we are in New York, or Lakewood, or Jerusalem, where there are many religious institutions and an abundance of kosher food, it’s easy. But what about “tomorrow,” the day after we make the resolution, when we are no longer in the yeshiva, when we are in Wichita, Kansas or in Eilat–how will we fare? Will we be able to hold true to our commitments and our resolutions?

I have frequently remarked that Jewish parents who hope to raise children that are balanced and moderate in their commitment to Judaism, must aim to be passionate. Parents who aim to be moderate, will have children who will feel quite casual about their Jewishness. Parents whose aim is casual will, G-d forbid, wind up with Episcopalian grandchildren!

To a certain extent, those who wish to maintain a proper and secure Jewish identity have to always feel as if they are surrounded by Sinai, as if they are in the same position as when the original commitment was made by their ancestors over three millennia ago. That is why some Jews today choose to live in Jewish ghettos, afraid of being exposed to much of the outside environment. While living a life entirely cut off from the modern world is certainly not what Judaism advocates, we do need to protect ourselves and our children. In order to keep our commitment strong, Jews need to make certain that the environment in which they live and thrive is a supportive environment, where the temptations are not overwhelming, so that they and their children will at least have a decent chance of succeeding Jewishly. And that can only happen if we see “tomorrow,” as if it is “today!”

For contemporary Jews, much of Jewish life is “tomorrow.” There is very little “today.” There is very little feeling about the mimetic tradition, about the tradition of our grandfathers and grandmothers. And so, when we say in our prayers, “Cha’daysh ya’may’noo k’kedem,” renew our days as of old, perhaps we are asking the Al-mighty to help us “return to the future,” to recreate for us the ancient experiences that strengthened the hands of our zaydes and bubbies, our grandmas and grandpas, who guided us through the spiritual minefields of generations past.

This is the challenge of the Divine Revelation in this, our 21st century.

May you be blessed.