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Har Sinai and Har haMoriah

Author: Esther Ehrman, Iyar 5772/May 2012

Judaism is unthinkable without the mountains that bear the names, Har Sinai and Har haMoriah. One is located in the wilderness where the Israelites spent forty years learning what was required to be the people that walked in G-d's ways. The other is set at the heart of the Promised Land. The one-time Revelation takes place on Har Sinai. On Har haMoriah, the people of Israel seek to serve and find a link to the Divine Presence on a daily basis. Are they now simply part of our 'history'?

We do not, to-day, know the exact location of Mount Sinai. Its significance, geographically, seems to be that it is 'in the wilderness'. That is the context every time the text refers to it, often by different designations. Thus Moses leads the sheep of his father-in-law, to the 'rear of the desert (achar ha midbar), to the 'mountain of the Lord, to Horeb (el har ha elokim, Horeva) (Ex 3,1). A little later, Zippora circumcises their son and the Lord tells Aaron to go and meet Moses ha midbara and they meet at the mountain of the Lord (be har haElokim). ( Ex.4,27).Moses' father-in-law comes just before the Revelation el ha midbar, to camp at har haElokim (Ex. 18,5) and that is where the Israelites are encamped ba midbar.....neged ha har, 'in the wilderness, in front of THE mountain'

(Ex 19,2). After the Revelation, Moses asks his father-in-law to stay with the Israelites and lead them ba midbar, he refuses and they then leave har H, the mountain of G-d (tetragrammaton) (Num.10, 33)And, just for emphasis, the opening words of Deuteronomy are 'These are the words that Moses spake...ba midbar, eleven days' journey from Horeb'.

The symbolism of 'wilderness' has been much discussed. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba) sees it as something 'hefker, open, available to all and says that whoever does not make himself ka midbar hefker, open as the desert, cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. Thus Mount Sinai, whence Torah and its wisdom emanate, needs to be set in a space that denotes availability, openness to all.

The Torah also describes the desert as eretz lo zaru'a, land where nothing grows; one could understand this as no man's land, extra-territorial with no ready-made associations; it is the opposite of the Garden of Eden, where everything grows and which comes with given rules. Mount Sinai could then be seen as a new beginning for the Israelites.

Mount Moriah is, we believe, the Temple Mount, the mountain of the Akeda, of the first and second Temples, According to Midrash it is also the place where sacrifices were brought by Adam, Cain and Abel and Noah. Although we know, now, where the Temple Mount is and where the Temples stood, the Torah text was not specific. In Gen,22,2 we read 'And He said: take now your son.....and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as an olah sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall tell you'.

Where the Temple was to be built is not told to the Israelites either. They are instructed by Moses (Deut. 12,5-6):'To the place that the Lord you G-d will choose...you shall come; and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices....' A place only acquires sanctity when the Almighty determines. The Temple is called the Beit haMikdash, the House that has the sanctity.

Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, during the Second Temple and until the 5th Century, was also the location of the Great Sanhedrin, the supreme halachic court. Once again, we now know that the Sanhedrin sat in a place that was partially within and partially outside the Temple. It is there because Moses had said: 'If a matter be too difficult for you to decide....then you shall go to the place that the Lord your G-d will choose...and you shall do according to the word that they will tell you from the place that G-d will choose' (Deut.17, v.8.10). We pray that Har haMoriah will again see the renewal of kedusha, sanctity, and Divine justice in our midst.

The Midrash sees the two mountains as essentially linked, even physically: 'So Mt Sinai plucked itself out of Mt Moriah, as a priest's portion is plucked out of the dough and that is how it came into being '(Midrash re Num.15,20) and, when the Torah was given on Har Sinai, 'The Temple Mount uprooted itself and came to the Sinai desert, so that the Torah would be given on holy ground' (Midrash re Yithro).

Har Sinai and Har haMoriah are the two witnesses to the Divine and the human course in Judaism.