Immediately preceding the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people are instructed to set boundaries around the mountain with a warning that read: “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge.”
After three days of preparation, Moses is summoned to the peak of the mountain and God tells him to warn the people not to come up the mountain. Moses suggests it is not necessary to repeat the warning, but God insists that they’re warned a second time.
We have to ask, what is the significance of this footnote that is almost lost in the momentous revelation episode? Of what interest to us is the method of crowd control that was employed at that time?
The 12th Century French Tosafist medieval Talmud commentator, Bechor Shor, explains that a close reading of the text reveals this wasn’t just a physical fence around the mountain – instead it was the people who had to make a figurative boundary for themselves and be warned not to pass through it.
In other words, this wasn’t a simple “Keep off the Grass” sign to protect the mountain, but a very important message to them and every generation.
The prerequisite for the Torah is to know when and where to set our own boundaries: we have to be constantly conscious that there are limits. In our daily routine, in our ambitions and in all areas of life, self-control is essential. The Torah was given to human beings, not animals, and what sets us apart is the fact that we’re endowed with free will.
But with freedom comes responsibility and the expectation that we exercise self-restraint.
The challenge of Sinai today is to be guided by the teachings of the Torah and be self-disciplined enough to set ourselves limits, beyond which we are not prepared to pass.
- Rabbi Alex Chapper serves Elstree & Borehamwood shul and is the Children’s Rabbi, childrensrabbi.com