"An altar of earth you shall make for Me" (Exodus 19:21)
Shevat 19, 5776/January 29, 2016
The revelation at Mount Sinai, G-d's first and only direct, unfettered, unobscured, unfiltered verbal communique with the nation of Israel, or any other nation, for that matter, was long in the making. In fact, our sages tell us, creation itself was only a prelude, a dry run, a setting of the stage for this once in an eternity event. After reemerging from a hidden place of obscurity from which He could not be seen during the early stages of the Israelite exile and enslavement in Egypt, to His burning bush appearance before Moshe, to His "behind the curtain" administration of the ten plagues that wreaked havoc on Egypt and forced the hand of Pharaoh and hardened his heart against his own will, G-d is now "stepping out" for the first since "the voice of HaShem G-d" (Genesis 3:8) stepped forth into the Garden of Eden in search of Adam, the first man.
G-d's preparations for His Sinai appearance before the people were elaborate. The choice of Mount Sinai, the cordoning off of the mountain before Israel, the lightning and thunder, the trumpet blasts, impenetrable fog and smoke, were all G-d's chosen backdrop and setting for His clear and instantaneous enunciation of the Ten Commandments to Israel, G-d's proposal of eternal matrimony with Israel, as it were. It wasn't an offer that Israel couldn't refuse, but had Israel ( G-d forbid) refused it, G-d would have rolled back all of creation to the dawn of time. The purpose of creation would have been daunted and G-d's will, as it were, would have been stymied.
As we all know, Israel, which had only reluctantly received Moshe's delivery of G-d's first message of imminent redemption, and had watched in silent awe the miracles G-d wrought in Egypt, who momentarily lost heart standing before the Sea of Reeds, who cried out bitterly in hunger and thirst, who questioned at times G-d's intentions and even His abilities, and expressed pains of remorse, longing to return to an idealized recollection of an Egypt that they had only left weeks before, heard and saw, received and accepted and embraced with all their united heart and soul, every word and nuance and import and responsibility expressed and implied in G-d's Sinai message to them.
And then the moment in eternity concluded, the thunder and the shofarot (rams horns) subsided, the lightning flashes dimmed, and just before the awesome terrifying immediacy of G-d's immeasurable nearness began to recede and the children of Israel began to literally return to the normal functioning of their senses, G-d , in loving anticipation of Israel's next question, commanded Israel, "An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall slaughter beside it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you." (Exodus 19:21)
Without a doubt, Israel's consuming concern in the immediate aftermath of Sinai was, 'if You, G-d , needed to create so elaborate a setting to speak to your children Israel, how can we ever be able to call upon You as You have called to us?' 'You will draw near and reach Me,' G-d replied, 'through the bringing of offerings upon an altar which you shall make, the work of your hands and the deepest expression of your hearts, and "I will come to you and bless you."
'Just as I made man by gathering indistinguishable, mute and unintelligible grains of earth, so shall you make an altar of the most humble and insignificant element, and I will bless it, so that it will become for you a mouth that expresses all the thoughts and prayers that you wish to share with Me.'
Israel would immediately take up G-d's offer, building the simple altar He described the moment He would command the building of His Sanctuary, the chosen place for the altar. The desert Tabernacle would become, in time, the Tabernacle of Shiloh, and the other cities in which it rested throughout Israel's first centuries in the land, and the pure and untainted by "hewn stones, lest you wield your sword upon it and desecrate it" (ibid 19:22) altar would be ultimately be established in Jerusalem, the place G-d chose to establish forever His Holy Temple. It is this "altar of earth" that we long to rebuild today, a place and a platform to reestablish with the G-d of Sinai the intimacy we all experienced first hand when we stood as one people at the foot of the mountain and G-d told us, for once and forever, "I am HaShem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." (ibid 20:2)