Shadows of Sinai

parshat yitro, exodus 19

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on February 9th 2023. The Torah uses two words that describe the orientation of the Israelites towards Mt. Sinai. We survey the interpretation of these words in the Rabbinic tradition, and surprisingly in the Koran, to shed some light on revelation and the long shadow cast by Sinai.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Yitro.  The Torah uses two words that describe the orientation of the Israelites towards Mt. Sinai: נֶ֥גֶד and תַחְתִּ֥ית. We survey the interpretation of these words in the Rabbinic tradition to shed some light on revelation and even to critique synagogue architecture. So join us for The Shadows of Sinai.


Well, welcome back to Madlik. It’s the beginning of spring, we are looking at the shadows are changing. And tonight, we are going to be talking about the shadows of Sinai, and really focusing on just two verses and a few words in those verses that all relate to the disposition, the position, the orientation of the Israelites, when they accepted the Torah. So, in Exodus 19: 2 it says having journeyed from Rephidim them, they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the wilderness, Israel encamped there in front of the mountain. And the Hebrew is וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר. In front of the mountain, opposite the mountain, neged is a word that we’re going to explore. So as usual, we’re going to go first to Rashi. And Rashi says that naked means to the east. For wherever you find the word neged, referring to a locality, it signifies with the face towards the east of the place mentioned. Now, I don’t know how you extrapolate facing east from the word neged. But I certainly see this as a clue that we’re going to be talking about tonight, more than just facing the mount of Sinai. Any Jew knows that when we Jews pray, we face east, any Jew knows that when we construct and set up a synagogue, we place the Torah as the focal point of the synagogue is facing east. So I don’t know if you have an insight into why neged means east. But I do feel and I’m curious whether you agree rabbi, that here he’s giving us a little bit of a hint of what layout lies at stake here and what we’re going to be talking about,

Adam Mintz  03:03

there’s no question about that East, you know, East of Eden, it you know, the idea of being east, that seems to be the main direction in the Torah. So neged haHar means that they faced east, that meant that that was the right direction to face, Mount Sinai was to their east, I guess was to their right. The reason that East is considered to be the premier direction, is because if you face north, that East is to your right. And you know, in the tradition to your right is always considered to be the more powerful or the better direction. So that’s where the idea of turning East comes from,

Geoffrey Stern  03:46

Well, indefinitely. The sunrise is in the east.

Adam Mintz  03:49


Geoffrey Stern  03:49

So it’s a place of New Birth, of positivity. And as you say, this kind of sense of the Garden of Eden and beginnings there. But as usual, Rashi is only one opinion. And the Ibn Ezra comes in, and he says na, I don’t really agree with you. He says there is a verse in numbers 2: 2 that says round about the tent, מנגד סביב לאוהל So again, like Rashi, he kind of understands what’s at stake here. We’re not simply talking about a moment in history, the revelation at Sinai, there is a clear connection between that revelation at Sinai that happened in a place in a time and the movable temple. And then ultimately, I guess you could extrapolate and talk about the Temple and the synagogue and this is a major moment. And what he’s saying is that since the same word MiNeged is used with the tabernacle and there another word is used in addition to it מנגד סביב they were pitched round about the tent. So we surely have established for at least with these two commentaries, we’re talking about more than Sinai.

Adam Mintz  05:16

Right… That’s for sure.

Geoffrey Stern  05:18

So now we go to our old buddy Shadal. Shmuel David Luzzatto. He focuses on another word in our verse. So if you recall, when I started, I said וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that the people encamped opposite the mountain, and he is now focusing on the word וַיִּֽחַן  and וַיִּֽחַן , Israel וַיִּֽחַן  is in the singular. So he says that Ibn Ezra and Ramban who we haven’t quoted, but we’ll take Shadal’s word for it, say they should have said ויחנו that they camped there. But the reason according to the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra that it says For econ is because the yehidim the elites, the heads of the tribes, the elders encamped around it. And the Shadal  says, and Boy oh boy, he says, and that is hevel, that is hot air. Pretty strong language. He says, because all those speaking about the people in a singular language, it is not intended to speak about a few of them. But on the contrary, the intention is to speak about the whole people in terms of there being all as one body. And then he goes on to say that they camped against the mountain, which means that the mountain was a center for them all. And they all turned to it. And here they were one association and one body.

Adam Mintz  07:10

Go on.. they All had their eyes and hearts on that mountain.

Geoffrey Stern  07:17


Adam Mintz  07:18

That’s a good end. You didn’t it is. But that’s a good end.

Geoffrey Stern  07:21

Yeah. And the Hebrew אגודה אחת וגוף אחד . Agudah means a circle if I’m correct.

Adam Mintz  07:30


Geoffrey Stern  07:31

They were one circle and one body. And he goes on if you want to talk about a verse where every word has significance. It says  וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר and he says the name of Israel as opposed to the people of Israel, or a Bnai Yaakov is used, because all the people were as one man against the mountain. So Shadal does a very good job of tying up these last five words of a verse

Adam Mintz  08:10

But he doesn’t really explain the word neged

Geoffrey Stern  08:13

I take it that he does, because he talks about that they were around it אגודה אחת . So, I am going out on a limb here. But I am taking,

Adam Mintz  08:27

You’re saying he assumes it.

Geoffrey Stern  08:29

Yeah, so if I had to bet what he is doing is he’s combining the sense of the Ibn Ezra that we came across in the Ibn Ezra that they were around the mountain with the fact that they were as one as you beautifully quoted their eyes and their hearts were focused on the mountain of God. So he does in my mind, kind of tie it up really, really nicely into something that is rather beautiful.

Adam Mintz  08:59

That is nice. That’s really nice. So neged is וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , means they were around the mountain, not opposite, opposite creates a distance, but around means you’re really close to it. That’s really your point. It’s very much different than Rashi.

Geoffrey Stern  09:20

It’s different than Rashi, who says it’s easterly. But what I take from Rashi. And what I take from the Ibn Ezra, who comes up with the concept of around is we’re all talking about more than Sinai. That’s where I think they all agree that we’re talking about Sinai, we’re talking about Mishkan, we’re talking about temple. We’re talking about our places of worship, even up to today. So, whether you faced east in a synagogue, if that’s one orientation, or whether you surround something in the middle, and you’re all facing it together, whether it’s a conflict between the two of positions or It’s a kind of refraction of the two dispositions, I don’t know. But I do think that it’s amazing how in these five words, we’ve come across so much, just in the sense of where things are oriented, where intentions are. What was happening at that magical moment.

Adam Mintz  10:25

Fantastic. The Shada is fantastic.

Geoffrey Stern  10:27

So at the end of last week’s segment, where we talked about dissonance, really, we really talked about the beginning of division within Israel. My good buddy Yochana came on. And he told and I did put it in the I left it in the podcast, he talked about a great Hasidic rabbi who actually quoted this verse, how, at the moment of revelation, Israel was one and the rabbi in a very beautiful, cynical, but smiley fashion that only a Hasidic Rabbi could say, is, you know why it said they were together as one then because the Torah wasn’t given yet. Once the Torah was given, all hell broke loose, everybody was a rabbi, everybody had a different opinion. So, this was this verse that he was commenting on that I think it’s, it’s it rigged it obviously rings very, very, true.

Adam Mintz  11:25

I love it.

Geoffrey Stern  11:26

So as long as we’re talking about dissonance, and we’re talking about the word neged I bring in two different references that I would love to add, to give context to what was happening at that moment at Sinai. And I want to go back to Genesis 2: 18. When God creates woman, and he says, it’s not good, that man is alone, I will make him a help meet. And the word that is used is עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ . Ezer is like Ezra it is help and keNegdo the commentary or the translation that I have from Everett Fox is a counterpart for him. But as we all know, the famous Rashi says, זָכָה – עֵזֶר; לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְדּוֹ לְהִלָּחֵם , If a man is merited, his wife will be a help to him. And if he doesn’t merit him, she will be opposed to him and fight him. And I love this sense of KeNeged, that neged is obviously in counter distinction, it can mean facing the mountain neged the mountain, but obviously neged also has a flavor of opposing and Rashi brings out that opposition. And I think if you take that Rashi and then you look at the giving of the Torah, and maybe what should or does happen in a synagogue, you have this potential for dissonance. You have this sense of agreement under some circumstances, but maybe either because you have shortcomings or possibly because you take the word so seriously. You have an opposition to it.

Adam Mintz  13:31

I like it. I want to make it even stronger, according to the Rashi  לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְדּוֹ לְהִלָּחֵם   Neged actually means opposite in a sense of distance וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that because of the holiness of the mountain, they needed to create distance from the mountain…  it’s the opposite of shutdown.

Geoffrey Stern  13:59

I believe that and I think it’s great you know, it reminds me of the Alter of Slabodka I believe a great Musernik… and I think I’ve told this story before, but he came over to a student and the student was about to say the Kriat Shma… the Shema where you accept the Ol malchut Shamayim.. where you accept the Ol Malchut shamayim the yoke of heaven? And he says have you ever said Shema and the student looked at him in dismay, and said Rebbe, I’m just about to say Shema, I say it twice a day I say it before I go to bed and the Alter returned to him and says and you accept upon yourself, the Ol Malchut Shamayim; the yoke of heaven and he goes of course Rebbe and he says and have you ever felt like rebelling? And there was quiet and then the Rebbe says well then you’ve probably never said the Shema in your life. And I think the lesson here that I take away is keneged HaHar there has to be a level of dissonance if you accept everything, just completely and without any struggle or tribulation or a reflex, then what are you really accepting? And I think that comes out.

Adam Mintz  15:16

That’s a great story. Yeah, that really says it. I think that’s great that you need to have some dissonance you just have to do. And that’s what Keneged means.

Geoffrey Stern  15:25

So the other reference, I think of is and you know, we started talking before the podcast about Purim is coming and Passover, is coming. And one of their key points in the Seder is the four children. And it says כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה , that the Torah spoke….  in my translation, it says “corresponding” to four sons, but certainly if one thinks of the wicked son, and some people even think about the wise son, or certainly the son who does not know how to speak, it’s clear that the Torah is speaking in a way to create a reaction, especially if you look at the son who does not know how to speak it says “At” you talk to him, maybe it’s the mother, somehow or other, the Torah is trying to elicit a reaction. And in that regard keneged can have another nuance. Yes, it is one of dissonance. But it’s also one of positive kind of triggering a conversation bringing on a difference of opinion so that you move forward. It’s a conversation.

Adam Mintz  16:41

It’s great. I mean, that’s absolutely great. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים  Neged I mean, neged there means that you look someone in the eye, I think the word you use is you engage them. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  16:55

Absolutely. And I think what’s fascinating is if we take it back to Sinai, and that’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to take back, there’s no question, Rabbi, I think you will agree with me that this verse in and of itself, doesn’t merit a whole lot of discussion. I mean, we all know וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that they can encamped opposite the mountain ..  move on. But it’s, it’s the rabbi’s and our tradition, who saw this as an opportunity to bring all of these are the discussions that impact our life till today, and maybe and we’ll see if we’re successful, maybe one of the messages of tonight’s discussion is that Sinai has to impact you, at every moment at a at a personal level, at a historical level, for it to be a real revelation.

Adam Mintz  17:50

Good. I like it. I think that’s great. And I think that seeing it in the word neged is really good. KaNeged right? There’s some kind of conversation and some kind of dissonance. The tension here is how much dissidence there is how close is it like Shadal says, and how far is it like the Keneged idea, right in לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְ ? That’s the challenge

Geoffrey Stern  18:19

Yep. So, as I said in the intro, there were two words that relate to the orientation of the Israelites to Sinai, and the second one occurs in our parsha at Exodus 19: 17. And it says Moses led the people out of the camp towards God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. So it says וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר Well first of all, if you think about it, לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים , if we go to synagogue tomorrow night, and we listen to the words of the Lecha Dodi we will surely pick out לְכָה דודִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה  .        m לִקְרַ֥את means to greet to go out and greet Moses led the people out of the camp likrat Elohim to greet God. And one of the translations and I love some of the translations that you get in Sefaria. It’s THE RASHI CHUMASH BY RABBI SHRAGA SILVERSTEIN  says most people towards God in parentheses he writes, who was coming towards them as a groom to a bride from the encampment they stood at the foot of the mountain. So here already, and I assume there are commentaries that make this parallel that pick up the sense of likrad but in a sense, we quoted Rashi a second ago about using neged to describe familial relationships, relationships between a couple here we pick up on that. And because we said a second ago that they were at the foot of the mountain tachtit really means underneath Mitachat, the mountain, l’havdil, the word for touchus.. is tachat. This is underneath the mountain. So here we almost have an image of the mountain being a Chuppah and the Jewish people being married to their ezer kenegdo under the mountain.

Adam Mintz  20:46

It’s a great image. Obviously, they’ve made a lot of this image, but it is a great image, right, that we were under the mountain. So you say it’s a Chuppah. But obviously, the other tradition is that there’s some fear of being under the mountain. Because if you’re under the mountain, then bad things could happen.

Geoffrey Stern  21:04

You’re sounding a lot like ezer kenegdo….

Adam Mintz  21:09

It might fall on your head, so you better be careful.

Geoffrey Stern  21:14

So the Rashi that we have, I don’t know what Rashi THE RASHI CHUMASH BY RABBI SHRAGA SILVERSTEIN was referring to, but our Rashi picks up on the Midrash that you refer to Rabbi and it says a midrashic explanation is that the mountain was plucked up from its place. שֶׁנִּתְלַשׁ הָהָר מִמְּקוֹמוֹ וְנִכְפָּה עֲלֵיהֶם כְּגִיגִית  and was arched over them as a cask. So they were standing Metachat beneath under the mountain. And this comes from the Mechilta and from the Talmud in Shabbat. So, in Rashi’s short little take-away from that Midrash, he doesn’t get into what the story was between picking up the mountain above them, …. you Rabbi have gone a little bit further on in this story. But if you just look at Rashi, and you put it in combination with the previous explanation, you could make a sense that there’s nothing scary about this. There’s nothing threatening about it, that he hold, he held over them, like a Gog really,  וְנִכְפָּה עֲלֵיהֶם כְּגִיגִית  KeGigit is very similar to the word Gog (roof). And that’s another image that we have, very quickly after we move and segue from opposite now we have underneath.

Adam Mintz  22:55

That’s right. kegigit. It’s the idea of a gag, you know, yeah, held it over them as a threat. Now, that’s a whole different thing. You know, one thing is keneged. The other thing is the idea that actually, you know, God is threatening us that if you accept the Torah good, and if not, I’m going to drop the mountain on your heads.

Geoffrey Stern  23:21

So you are referring to the Talmud in Shabbat 88a.  I promise I am going to get to that.

Adam Mintz  23:29

Okay. I wanted to make sure.

Geoffrey Stern  23:31

Okay, you wanted to keep me honest tonight. So, so I wanted to stop here, because I think there’s a possibility that Rashi is picking just this part of the story and letting us let us savor it for a second. Now, if you look at the notes, there is a wonderful article that I quote, on the synagogue that was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1954. And the article compares it to synagogues from Poland that were built hundreds of years before. And please go look at the source sheet to see this article. And to see the images

Adam Mintz  24:15

That is actually fascinating that that’s so.  that it’s so similar. That’s a great article.

Geoffrey Stern  24:20

Well it’s not only similar,

Adam Mintz  24:22

The Jewish Review of books. great!

Geoffrey Stern  24:22

Especially if you look at the at the synagogue from Poland, right? It is truly there’s no question about it. And it doesn’t it photographs like it’s massive as if it was the Frank Lloyd Wright. I understand it isn’t even that large. I really believe that some models have been built of it. And I believe even in the new museum in Poland, called Polin. They have a model of the synagogue but you are truly as you walk in, you are walking under Sinai. The synagogue itself is Built like Mount Sinai. And I think from an architectural translation of the verses that we just discussed, there’s not only that you are underneath this, it’s not a dome. It’s a mountain, no question about it. But the other aspect that comes out clear in the article was that the Bima was in the middle. Now Rabbi, you were once a rabbi at Lincoln Square synagogue, and that was called the Shul in the round. … it was all around that center Bima. But I would love you to confirm I wasn’t able to find a source for this. But when I grew up in the Yeshiva world, we think that the Orthodox movement in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, argued with a form about theology and they did, argued about women’s roles and they did, but one of the most major arguments that they had was where is the Bima? Where is the Torah read from? Because in the reformed congregations, they follow the model of the churches, and they put all of what the clergy was doing up on a stage up front. And the rabbi’s. Again, I’d love to hear what you have to say, Rabbi, were as vehement against that change as anything else.

Adam Mintz  24:55

You’ve just told the story. It’s amazing because tomorrow morning, I give a class at Maharat, and I’m learning the laws of Shuls; of synagogues. And we’re talking exactly about this exactly what you said in 1840. They built a synagogue in Hamburg called the Temple. And one of the changes in the Temple was that they moved all the action to the front, they moved the Bima to the front, because that’s the way the church had it, that everything happens in front. And the rabbis. The Orthodox rabbis were vehemently opposed to that. I mean, you think it’s not a very big deal, but they basically said that it was absolutely prohibited from going into that Shul. The other thing they changed was that the sermons were delivered in German. Now it’s not like the sermons used to be delivered in Hebrew. The sermons were never delivered in Hebrew. The sermons were delivered in Yiddish, but Yiddish was a holy language to them. And they thought that it was totally disrespectful to deliver the sermons in German.

Geoffrey Stern  27:27

But I want to talk about the language of the architecture and the form. And the rabbi who was working with Frank Lloyd Wright. The one thing…. and everybody knows that Frank Lloyd Wright did not listen to the people he was building his edifices is for. But he asked that the Bima the where the toe would be read, would be deep in the heart of the congregation. And that’s a quote, and Wright referred to the place where the congregation was as an auditorium. And Rabbi Cohen said, that where the bimah would be, would influence synagogue architecture for years to come. I do not know if that’s the case, if it was the Wright synagogue that influenced it. But I can tell you and my synagogue in Westport, Connecticut has just gone through a renovation. And yes, as in the Wright synagogue, you can move the Bima to the middle of the synagogue, but it’s not permanently there. And I can tell you that one lesson that we learned from today and from the portion, and we’re not going to have time rabbi to get to the mountain above their heads was a threat, we’re only going to talk about the mountain above, and the Bima in the middle as the standard that was set by Sinai. And I can tell you that there is nothing more important than having the Torah as the centerpiece, where those eyes that you described from Shadal are all focused on the same place in the center, where every congregant is at the same level, and they are no Yechidim, where there is this healthy dialogue, sometimes even dialectic and debate between us and the Torah up. But it’s all there in these two verses.

Adam Mintz  29:29

And in these two words and I think that’s great. Thank you very much, Geoffrey. The sources were amazing today. And I think it gives us a new perspective on the experience of revelation of receiving the law. Want to wish everybody a Shabbat Shalom, it’s an amazing parsha an amazing story, and we look forward to seeing everybody back next Thursday night. Shabbat shalom, everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  29:54

Sabbats Shalom and Rabbi you have to keep me to my word. We will come back to the mountain over the head of the Israelites

Adam Mintz  29:58

It’s a great Gamora… we won’t miss it…

Geoffrey Stern  29:58

Shabbat Shalom to everybody.

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