There was an eighties American sitcom called ‘The Golden Girls’. One of the characters, Sophia Petrillo, an elderly Italian grandmother, would occasionally gather an audience around her to recount a dramatic story. She would begin with the words -‘Picture this….’. I am always reminded of her when I read about the build-up to the giving of the Torah.
The Children of Israel are camped in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai. God reminds them what He did to free them from slavery and that they have been chosen to be His ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.
The assembled throng are united in their response, ready for whatever He has in store and say with one voice, ‘all that God has spoken, we will do’.
So, on the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), less than fifty days after their departure from Egypt, the entire nation of Israelites wait expectantly for the climax of these momentous few weeks.
God ‘descends’ to the mountain amidst thunderbolts and lightning, heavy clouds of smoke and the loud blasts of a shofar. He then summons Moses to ascend to receive final instructions before returning for the hand-over.
God announces the Ten Commandments, directing the multitude that they must believe in God, not worship idols or take God’s name in vain. They must keep the Shabbat, honour one’s parents, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness and not covet another’s property.
The people are initially overwhelmed by the expectation being placed upon them and complain to Moses that it is all too much to bear. Instead they implore Moses to take the lead and then pass it on, with clear instructions as to what they have to do. The sedra ends with Am Yisrael as a whole, as well as each individual separately, accepting ownership of what they have been given.
Earlier today I heard the tail end of a radio interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor and ex Governor of California. He was talking about environmental matters and observing that the engagement with these issues in America was not equal to their urgency. He said that the messaging was all wrong, ‘too much fact, not enough story’. To illustrate this he said ‘if you want to promote a movie, it’s no good telling the audience what lenses were used or detail the lighting arrangements – you need to focus on selling the story…’.
I have no doubt that those present at Sinai appreciated the importance of the Aseret HaDibrot and the impact they would have on their future identity and values, but ‘the story’ that preceded their giving, starting back in Egypt, was crucial in getting their full attention, at the birth of a new nation.