Tradition Today: The significance of Sinai

It was the Exodus that made us a free people. It was Sinai that made us a holy nation.

June 3, 2011 16:41
4 minute read.
Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

We all know Shavuot as Zman Matan Torateinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – yet there is no mention of that in the Torah itself. Rather, the Torah refers to it simply as the 50th day after bringing the first sheaf of the new harvest: “Then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:16), and “On that same day you shall hold a celebration” (Lev. 23:21). Numbers 28:26 calls it “the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Weeks.”

Strangely enough, no connection is made to the events at Mount Sinai. In the Torah itself, then, there is no day commemorating what could be seen as the culmination of the purpose of the Exodus, the great covenant-ceremony at Sinai. This is even stranger when we consider that the date of Sinai, as recorded in the Torah itself, corresponds with Shavuot. It remained for rabbinic Judaism to connect Shavuot with the giving of the Torah.

It is of course impossible to know why the Torah did not command us to celebrate the events at Sinai. If I may speculate, perhaps the event itself was considered so mysterious and so unique that any attempt to commemorate it or to imitate it would only be seen as diminishing it. The Exodus can be understood and can even be reenacted at Pessah. Dwelling in succot can also be replicated. How does one replicate the revelation of God at Mount Sinai, the making of the covenant through which Israel became God’s people and the Lord became Israel’s God?

And yet, at a later time, the Sages must have felt the lack of such a day and the need to celebrate the uniqueness and the divinity of the Torah when others were making similar claims for their sacred scripture. Within the circle of the Pharisees, Shavuot became associated with the events at Sinai. There is, of course, no way to duplicate those events, but by reading the section of the Torah in which they are described, we celebrate them. The later custom of reading a ketuba (marriage certificate) between God and Israel also emphasizes the purpose of the event: the making of a covenant – a kind of marriage – between God and Israel, the terms of which are stated in the Torah.

The significance of the events at Sinai is both in the content and in the covenant. According to the accounts in the Torah itself, the content of the revelation was the Ten Pronouncements and some basic laws recounted in the Torah portion of Mishpatim. Other laws were given subsequently during the years of wandering. Modern biblical studies extend that period and see the Torah as a compilation of interpretations of Moses’s original teachings by different schools that was completed at the time of Ezra, when it was accepted as the law of Israel (Nehemiah 8:1-6). We are justified in calling it “the Torah” – i.e., teaching – “of Moses” since it is based on his instruction to the people of Israel.

For a religious person, this is seen as being inspired by God. As Abraham J. Heschel wrote, “how these words were written down is not the fundamental problem... The act of revelation is a mystery, while the record of revelation is a literary fact, phrased in the language of man.”

The covenant at Sinai is the second covenant made by God and our ancestors. The first was the covenant of Abraham, stated in the very first words God said to him: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2). Later, he is told that the covenant includes granting the Land of Canaan to his descendants (Gen. 15:18-21). But nothing is demanded of Abraham, or later of Isaac or Jacob. They are granted God’s gifts and blessings because of their loyalty to God. It is not until the time of Moses, at Sinai, that the second covenant is made – not simply a gift, but a conditional agreement between two parties: “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5).

Shavuot for us, as descendants of the Sages, is the time to affirm our belief in the Torah as the inspired teaching of Moses, and to reaffirm our adherence to it as the terms of the covenant between the people of Israel and God. It was the Exodus that made us a free people. It was Sinai that made us a holy nation.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.

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