Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Yitro
To dedicate this lesson

“Do Not Go Up With Steps”


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

17 Shvat 5768
Twice in our parasha we find the warning to be careful how to go upward. The first time is the one-time commandment to Moshe to make Har Sinai off limits to most of Bnei Yisrael during the giving of the Torah. This was necessary lest someone go up on the mountain or see what he should not, which could cause the falling of "rav" (which can mean many people or a great person) (Shemot 19: 12-22). Toward the end of the parasha the Torah instructs to build a ramp for the mizbe’ach (altar), for if one were to go up with steps, his private parts might be seen (ibid. 20:22).
If one takes the p’sukim at face value, there does not seem to be a connection between the two topics. One rule has to do with avoiding an overwhelmingly holy place that happens to have been a mountain. The other seems to deal with a technical concern to avoid something unseemly when one properly ascends the mizbe’ach. However, let us explore a homiletic idea that will add a further aspect to our appreciation of these topics.
The Meshech Chochma (Shemot 19:22) raises the idea that those closest to Hashem are liable to receive severe punishment for their sins. As Hashem knew that shortly after the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael would sin with the Golden Calf, He was concerned about the severity of the punishment that would be needed. Had Bnei Yisrael been allowed to go up the mountain and be exposed to Divine Revelation in an even more profound manner than they actually were, their level of culpability would have been so great as to mandate full destruction. Therefore, Hashem prevented them from attaining a dangerously high spiritual level. Indeed, unchecked rapid spiritual growth can cause a precipitous spiritual fall if proper spiritual protections are missing. As mentioned above, going up the mountain could have caused the fall of many and/or the great.
The Divine Presence that rested on Sinai later departed and appeared on the mizbe’ach of the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. Following the Meshech Chochma’s lead, we can conclude that there too it is important to check how we go up to the altar. To understand how that might apply, let us look at the Kli Yakar on the concept of uncovering oneself when walking on steps. He says that this alludes to haughtiness, as Chazal say that one who is haughty is like one who carries out sins of incest or promiscuousity. In Mishpatim, we learn that the Sanhedrin was placed near the altar to teach us that the same need of humility is required regarding judgment as well.
If one is elevated too fast he may stumble in his self-image and suffer from over-confidence as if that is his natural position. This can lead even or especially a person of stature to a situation that is comparable to promiscuity and in some cases to promiscuity itself.
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