Shabbat Mishpatim: What happpened at Sinai?

January 27, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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One of the challenges to traditional Judaism comes from academic analysis of the Torah as if it were either a Book of History or literature that one can decipher from a rational, point of view.

This misses the powerful moral and spiritual messages of the Torah which is not like any other kind of text.

This week we have a good example of how differently one can look at the Torah. We are given a list of rules and regulations we might call civil laws. Almost all of them can be found in earlier Mesopotamian codes such as Hammurabi’s (around the time of Abraham). But the crucial difference is that in the Torah every citizen is treated equally under the law whereas in all the other codes upper classes always received preferential treatment in contrast to lower classes and men over women. The Torah offers a new system for everyone civilly, even if there are differences ceremonially. This is why at Sinai we are called a Nation of Priests. We all can be holy in our way.

After these laws, the Torah returns to the Sinai Revelation as if to remind us that over and above a civil code there are higher moral and ethical values. But there are differences between Chapter 19 and here Chapter 24 in the way the Torah describes the Sinai Revelation.

In chapter 19 Moses and Aaron go toward the mountain leaving everyone else down at the bottom and Moses proceeds further up to the summit. But the second narrative refers to Aaron and his sons Nadav and Aviu together with the elders advancing part of the way up the mountain and the rest standing back at the base.  In the second version, Moses sends the young men to offer sacrifices. And then in Chapter 24:10 “ They saw the God of Israel and at the base, it was like bright sapphire and a pure as the heavens.” This is strange since we are told that God has no physical form, so it must be a metaphor. God did not react negatively. And they all sat down to eat and drink which implies that everyone took part in a huge celebratory meal.

If you look at the first version in Chapter 19 the emphasis is on the preparation both for Moses going up the mountain to receive the Tablets of Stone and on confirming the covenant. This is where the actual text of the Ten Commandments is given and so it is the primary source.

The second version in Chapter 24 involves expanding the number of priests and leaders who can go further up the mountain; Aaron’s sons, the elders, and another group of nobles, perhaps the tribal leadership as well as the young men. The text is concerned with how they all experience the Revelation and how they respond by heightened awareness, of life and other people. There is a third version after the Golden calf debacle, in which Joshua plays a significant role.

Some might say these versions show that different scribes gave were giving their records or traditions of the event which were later edited into one text.  And theoretically, that is possible but as the song goes “ It ain’t necessarily so.” If we say that The Torah has seventy ways of understanding it, this means there are different ways of understanding the text. We need to make use of as many as possible.

The  Torah’s style of communication is to keep on repeating crucial events. Like an artist who adds layer upon layer of paint until you have the completed canvas in all its richness. A language is a limited form of expression. One often needs to go back and clarify which means that one changes the emphasis in one version, but we need the second to add other dimensions.

This was both a physical and a spiritual event. It involved both the nation as a whole and each person experienced it through their own senses from the highest ranks to the lowest. In this, they were all united for a while at least.

Everyone can climb the mountain of spirituality, and it is up to us to decide to what extent we want to let Sinai influence our lives.

Exodus Chapters 21 -25

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