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An Artistic Midrash on The Mt. Sinai Theophany

Avner Moriah’s artistic ‘midrash’ on the Theophany at Mt. Sinai expresses how the Children of Israel may have experienced God’s presence with and for them. Dr. Shulamit Laderman takes us inside the painting.

In Parashat Yitro we meet the Israelites after God took them out of Egypt, got them across  the Reed Sea, and He is now about to give them the Torah. Moses, who led them until now has to prepare for this dramatic event. How is doing it? As God instructs him, he has to teach them about purity and sanctity, about washing their clothes, and about the need to avoid going near a woman. Moses instructs the people to approach the mountain, but not to touch it, and to wait for three days for the spectacular theophany they are about to experience.

Let us examine how this is visually expressed in a painting done by the artist Avner Moriah for this parasha. In a very colorful and impressive painting of Matan Torah, Moriah divides the painting into four registers.

Avner Moria’s painting: The Gathering at Mt. Sinai

First is the register of the DESERT at the bottom of the painting, where we see a stretch of sand that is in keeping with the verse: “They entered the wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.” (Exod. 19:2) In a way this description reminds one also of the early story of Moses when he, “drove his flock into the wilderness, and came to Horev the mountain of God,” (Exod. 3:1) where he saw the burning bush. Here is where he is given the Godly command to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Second is the register of THE ISRAELITES. Here we see the people of Israel being led by Moses, “out of the camp toward God, and they had taken their places at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17). We see them dressed in their finest clothing, standing very close to one another, facing – but not approaching – the mountain, as Moses told them: “…Beware of going up the mountain, or touching the border of it.” (Exod. 19:12) Thus they are gathered near the holy mountain to hear the words: “…if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5, 6)

The two upper registers are of the THE MOUNTAIN and THE FIRE. The mountain stands in contrast to the desert. It is painted green and is engulfed in purple smoke: “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire.… The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (Exod. 19:18, 20). The mountain here serves as the axis between Heaven and Earth, but only Moses is allowed to approach it, and ascend upon it according to God’s command.

The tongues of fire burning fiercely on top of the mountain are the artist’s rendition of the theophany. The painting visualizes the overwhelming grandeur of the event. The image of the newly freed slaves standing at the foot of that fearful-looking mountain gives us a sense of the enormity of Moses’ task to teach them about their transcendental God. The God whom they cannot actually see or physically encounter. Thus, by having to stand at a distance from the mountain without trying to reach it is the Israelites’ introduction to the concept of sanctity and holiness. The painting of the smaller flames that resembles horns (shofarot) among the yellow tongues of fire help us understand the ambiguous Hebrew expression: “All the people saw the voices and the flames.” (Exod. 20:15) Although God remained unseen, He was present in the sound that came out of the fusion of the sublime fire and the horns blasting from within it.

The painting, then, visualizes the mighty, majestic, and fearful theophany, which led to the Israelites’ plea to Moses: “You speak to us…but let not God speak to us.” (Exod. 20:16) They, “remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Exod. 20:18) Moses is not figured in the picture, but he continues to deliver God’s words to the people from the cloud.

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an Interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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