Education: The Foundation of Humility
“Where does Mount Sinai come from?” asks the Midrash (Shochar Tov 68). From Mount Moriah. It had been taken from there like Challah is taken from dough, from the spot where Isaac was to have been sacrificed. Thus G-d said, “Since Isaac was to have been sacrificed here, it is good that his children receive the Torah here.”
We may ask ourselves at least three questions concerning this passage.
1. If Mount Moriah is so important, why was the Torah not given on it (without having a portion taken from it and placed on Mount Sinai)?
2. What exactly does “It had been taken” mean? Why did our Sages add, “like Challah is taken from dough”?
3. What is the connection between the sacrifice of Isaac and the giving of the Torah? Did these two events have to occur in the same place?
The Torah commands: “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it” (Deuteronomy 20:5). What exactly does “lest he die” signify? It means that all those who leave for war are exposed to danger.
What then does “who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it” mean? It is that even the construction of a house implies the performance of several mitzvot that are inseparable from one another, from the mitzvot connected to the house itself (such as the mezuzot [Deuteronomy 6:9] and the fence on the roof [ibid. 22:8]) to the mitzvot that one performs within its walls (such as the laws of kashrut, family purity, being fruitful and multiplying). The precepts carried out within the home, and the Divine Presence found therein, constitute the very foundation of the Torah. Concerning this, the Talmud teaches that if a man and his wife are worthy, the Divine Presence lives among them; if not, they are devoured by fire (Sotah 17a). A man performs mitzvot and good deeds in every corner of the house. He impregnates it throughout with holiness, and it is difficult to commit a sin there. The beams and the walls of the house will witness against him if he commits a sin within (Taanith 11a). In the same way that one educates one’s children, one educates and impregnates one’s house in the service of G-d.
If, as the Talmud relates (Yoma 47a), Kimchit had seven sons who all became High Priests, it was because the beams of her house never saw the braids of her hair. She was careful to hide them even when she was alone in the house, doing so in order to impregnate it with holiness. Because of her modesty, she had the merit to give birth to seven High Priests.
Therefore if a person has built a house without having performed mitzvot in it that he had intended to carry out, he does not have the right to go to war. He will be judged for not have having inaugurated it with mitzvot and good deeds. Moreover, Jonathan ben Uziel translated the verse in question into Aramaic as follows: “If someone has built a new house, and has not affixed a mezuzah to it….” For it is the mezuzah and other mitzvot that constitute the foundation of the Jewish home and generates humility in man, a guarantee that the Divine commandments will be carried out.
On Mount Moriah, our Patriarch Isaac was taught to fear the Eternal and to serve Him with the greatest of devotion. Our Sages teach that when the Jewish people finds itself in distress, the “ashes” of Isaac rise toward the Holy One, blessed be He, and his merit saves them. Where, in fact, do these “ashes” come from? Isaac was never sacrificed! The answer is that his modesty and humility allowed him to reach the level of dust and ashes, which are scattered by the wind to the four corners of the earth. It is similar to the Challah that we take from the dough: It is really bread, but when we burn it, it is literally transformed into ashes.
The Talmud teaches that from Mount Moriah, an instructional teaching was sent to the Jewish people – a teaching of modesty, submission, and the fear of Heaven. Just as Mount Moriah was uprooted, the Torah does not stay in one place; one finds it everywhere. We too should perform mitzvot everywhere, with the greatest humility – that is the essential thing. As we have seen, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai because it was the smallest of mountains, and it is part of Mount Moriah.
Desiring to impregnate the Torah and mitzvot within themselves in order to defeat the evil inclination, the Children of Israel therefore settled in the desert, where the forces of evil especially raged, close to Sinai. They wanted to attain very high levels of spirituality on this mountain, a mountain that meromem Y-h (“the Eternal uplifts”) Note that Moriah = meromem Y-h, as well as the similarity between the numerical values of Y-h (the Eternal) and ga’avah (pride): Both equal to 15. By the study of Torah, we only adorn ourselves in the Eternal’s majesty.
This Torah portion carries the name Yitro because he, fleeing all honors, went to the desert to impregnate himself with Divine worship and to fight the evil inclination.
This is also what the Children of Israel did. In fleeing from honors into the desert, they were then “pursued” by Mount Moriah, which elevated them and allowed them to reach sublime spiritual levels.
Commenting on the verse that states, “So shall you say [ko tomar] to the House of Jacob and relate [veteigehd] to the Children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3), the Talmud explains (Shabbat 87a) that the Eternal uses gentle language with the House of Jacob (that is, with the women), and rough language with the Children of Israel (that is, with the men). Why two different manners of speaking? Why, moreover (and contrary to that which normally happens), does the verse mention the women before the men?
The answer is that a man learns the virtue of humility from a woman. If on Mount Sinai it was the Torah that reminded him to conduct himself in all humility, who would remind him to do so in his home, if not his wife? The Midrash teaches that all while being strong, a woman is born with a discreet, modest disposition (Bereshith Rabba 18:3). This is why, in order to learn humility (which is the very foundation of the entire Torah), a woman needs ko tomar (“thus shall you say”) and “I am the L-RD your G-d”.