Preparing for Matan Torah

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5766/May 2006

Leviticus Chapter 19

We are all familiar with the phrase vayedaber H el Moshe leimor: daber el benei Yisarel. Moses passes on to us instructions from H and that is how we learn how, what and when to carry out the divine instructions by which the Jewish people live.

In the Shavuot reading of the Torah, things are not as straightforward. Moses goes up and down the mountain, bringing down words from G-d, setting them before the people, taking up their reply and setting that before G-d, again bringing down G-d's words and again 'holding out' (S.R.Hirsch) the words of the people to G-d before the Ten Commandments are spoken by the Lord.

The obvious question is why is this procedure necessary at this point?

First, what are the people and G-d saying to one another?

In Ex Ch19, the children of Israel encamp at the foot of Mt Sinai and (v.3) Moses goes up and G-d tells him 'You are to say...'You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you unto Myself (v.4-6). Much as in the first of the Ten Commandments, the Almighty opens by reminding the Israelites how He brought us out of Egypt. Then (v7),Moses 'sets before the elders' what G-d has said . The Israelites reply vaya anu kol ha am yachdav vayomeru: kol asher diber H na ase – and Moses reports the words of the people to G-d. Once na ase has been said, G-d tells Moses that He will speak to Moses in a cloud 'that the people may hear when I speak with you'.(There is a slight problem here. Do the people only 'overhear' what G-d says to Moses or does G-d speak to them 'face to face' as Moses reminds them in Deut.5,v.4).

The people have given their commitment and now G-d tells Moses to tell them to sanctify themselves for 3 days and under no circumstances to come up or even touch the mountain – now a holy space until the end of the event. Moses gets called up again and told to go down (v.20,21) to make sure they do not touch the mount. Again, Moses reassures the Lord on this point.v.23. Now, G-d is ready to give the Ten Commandments.

One might have expected that preparing for the event of Revelation would require the people to spend time, mentally and physically. But this is surely more. It almost looks as if G-d needs to be 'persuaded', to be reassured that the Covenant He is about to offer will have a partner.

We need to remember that the Almighty had offered a deal to the Israelites once before. In Egypt, they had complained to Moses that now they had to find straw for their bricks because Moses had spoken to Pharaoh. G-d hears their cry and says in Va Ayra, ( Ex.6, v5 ff -9)'Say unto the children of Israel: I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians....and I will take you unto Me for a people and I will be to you a G-d....and I will bring you in unto the Land...and Moses spoke so to the children of Israel, but they hearkened not...' At that point the Israelites did not listen. At that point the offer had been unconditional – nothing bout keeping My laws. But they were not ready.

Now they are ready. The dialogue between G-d and the Israelites here ( 19) is not just a conversation. It is a negotiation. The words of one party have to be considered by the other party. It is to the credit of the Israelites that they can say na'ase before they have heard all of the contract. They sign fully once they have heard it, towards the end of Mishpatim, which includes civil laws, festivals, shemita. Again, Moses is told to 'come up' and then. (Ex.24,3) "Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord". Va yaan kol ha am vayomeru kol ha devarim asher diber H na ase. Then Moses builds an altar, erects 12 pillars, reads them the contract, 'sefer ha brit'. Vayomeru kol asher diber H na'ase ve nishma. ('we will do and we will internalise') That is their ratification, whereupon Moses completes the ritual with the sprinkling of the blood onto the people. The Covenant made at Mount Sinai is entirely for the benefit of the children of Israel, but they needed to commit themselves to execute the clauses of the contract. That is why it was essential for Moses to go up and down the mountain repeatedly between the two parties.