Midway on the Manhattan Bridge
Inbound, sun setting
I see a part of heaven I have never seen before,
The part that looks like hell from below.
Thirty Fourth Street to the right
I see a teardrop trickling down
The Empire’s face
As it stares at its twin fallen sisters.
Alone it remains standing
At watch, alone
I see clouds that I have never seen before
Dark and menacing
Yet white and bright.
A gaping window has opened,
Billows above, carnage below
Yet as the man made edifices have been humbled
They make way for a new blue sky.
Where Heaven Meets Earth
G-d came down on Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain. He summoned Moses to the mountain peak, and Moses climbed up – Exodus (Yisro) 19:20
In the early years of the Word Trade Center I remember a great ad that always remained with me. It was advertising the observation deck of the WTC. The ad consisted of a photo showing a birds eye view of the WTC observation deck. Above the picture were the words: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.”
A sad smile came to me as I reminded myself of this ad while reading this week’s Torah portion. In it we read about one of the most if not the most momentous event in history: the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
The Midrash offers the following parable to explain what happened at Sinai:
Once there was a king who decreed: “The people of Rome are forbidden to journey to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to journey to Rome.” Likewise, when G-d created the world He decreed and said: “The heavens belong to G-d, and the earth is given to man.” But when He wished to give the Torah, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms. And I, Myself, will begin”—as it is written, “And G-d descended on Mount Sinai,” and then it says, “And to Moses He said: Go up to G-d.”
Before Sinai, there existed a “decree” that split reality into two self-contained realms: the spiritual and the material, the Divine and the mundane. Spirituality could have no real effect upon the physical world. It remained relegated to the sublime reality of the “heavens.” The material on the other hand could not be elevated—it could be improved and perfected to the limits of its potential, but it could not transcend its inherent limitations and subjectivity. Nor could the spiritual be truly brought down to earth—its very nature defied actualization.
This dichotomy was dissolved at Sinai. A fissure was opened in the inviolable wall, a window from the inner world of the spirit to the external world of the material. Heaven and earth met.
No longer did the old rules apply, where what was inside was locked in and what was outside shut out. The human was empowered to integrate the spiritual and the dark, cold world of matter and imbue it with warmth and light.
The process that began with Abraham and continued with Isaac and Jacob, finally reached fruition seven generations later, with Moses climbing Mount Sinai and G-d ‘descending.’ As discussed in my previous essays, Abraham and his children were primarily concerned with the fundamental struggle between spirit and matter – how to integrate these two worlds. At Sinai the marriage of heaven and earth was consummated.
Life ever since has not been the same. The window that opened at Sinai changed reality forever. Now it became possible to not only scrape the sky but to actually reach it. Though physical skyscrapers were yet to come, the human race on earth was empowered to touch heaven.
3314 years have passed since the sky was scraped at Sinai. During these years much has transpired. Abraham’s teachings, conveyed at Sinai, had reached not only the children of Jacob, but also began reaching the children of Esau and Ishmael. Christianity and Islam were born. Great wars have been fought. Religious wars have been waged – all struggling to make peace between G-d and the universe. Industry and technology transformed this planet. We seemed to have conquered not just earth but the very skies, with our air travel, spaceships and skyscrapers.
Who is not in awe of the New York skyline which, among the many skylines around the world, is a tribute to mans’ tremendous power.
And now, 3314 years later, on September 11th the altered landscape of the New York skyline has rudely reminded us of the fragility of our manmade airplanes and skyscrapers.
Isn’t it interesting that the Midrash uses “Rome” and “Syria” as symbols of the two dichotomous worlds of heaven and earth – each forbidden to travel to the other. Christian Rome and Muslim Syria – West and East – are now at war with each other. In the name of heaven (as distorted as it may be), Muslim fundamentalism is attacking the secular earthiness of Rome [Edom].
Perhaps they have forgotten Mattan Torah. And this week’s Torah portion is here to remind them that heaven and earth can be joined, that we can and must reach a balance between these seemingly incompatible realities. It happened 3314 years ago at Sinai. And it can happen today.
Until I reminded myself about Mattan Torah, I felt that the WTC observation deck was the closest I would ever get to heaven. Hey, after all I am a pretty earthy type of guy. I like to enjoy life. I have my share of vices and failings. I was never very optimistic about my secure place in heaven. Of course, we all want heaven for its climate, but hell seems so much more fun for its company. And let’s face it, it’s just so much easier to live an undemanding life.
That was all till Mattan Torah. Sinai has given me – and all of us – hope. Hope that we can get closer than we ever have to heaven.