Sign In Forgot Password

Where is Sinai?  | Mishpatim,   5780

02/24/2020 10:15:18 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld


This past week I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Holy Land, Israel.

I had many memorable moments on this visit but for me one of the most precious was the ability to spend time studying Torah with our son as he spends a year in Yeshivat Oraita, a wonderful yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. I attended Torah classes and had the pleasure of attending a Thursday night parsha class which began with passionate dancing. 

The love for Torah —the burning desire and excitement to study Torah — that I felt in that environment was so pure and powerful.

The Shabbat I was in Israel we read the narrative of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  I felt that it was especially beautiful to read about the Sinai experience while spending time with people who were dedicating their lives to Torah.

Actually the narrative about the revelation at Sinai, the Sinai experience, not only appears in Yitro, but also appears in parashat Mishpatim.

Parashat Mishpatim begins with civil laws—mishpatim.  “Ve’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem.  And these are the laws which you must place before them.”  Rashi says that the word “va’eleh,” is adding on to the earlier passage, the revelation at Sinai—the Ten Commandments.  “Mah elyonim misinai, af tachtonim misinai, just like the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so too the civil laws contained in our portion were also given at Sinai (21:1). 

According to this narrative arc, first Moshe received the Ten Commandments, then he went up the mountain for forty days and during that time he received at a minimum the laws contained in parashat mishpatim.

However, the portion ends in a surprising manner –by returning to the revelation associated with Sinai.  In Chapter 24, we are told that that the elders of Israel saw the throne of Hashem, and underneath His legs there was brickwork like sapphire (24:10), after which Moshe went up the the mountain which was covered with clouds and the presence of God (15-16), and after that Hashem called to Moshe from the mountain.  God’s presence at that moment was like a consuming fire (eish ochelet) on the top of the mountain in front of all of the eyes of benei yisrael (17).

This “consuming fire” in front of all of Israel certainly sounds like the Sinai revelation.  And indeed, this is how Rashi explains it: Gd called to Moshe “lomar aseret hadibrot” to say the Ten Commandments (24:16).

So to recap the narrative arc of the Sinai experience in the Torah:

First, the Torah tells us about the Ten Commandments in Yitro.

Second, the Torah tells us the laws of Mishpatim that Moshe was told when he went up the mountain.

Third, at the end of Mishpatim (out of sequence) the Torah returns to the revelation at Sinai, describes it in more detail, and again tells us that the Ten Commandments were taught at Sinai.

So we see that our portion is written backwards.  First we should have been given the description of Sinai, and only then told about the laws that were given on the Sinai mountain.

We know that the Torah can be written out of sequence, but in this case we wonder WHY it is written out of sequence.

The simple answer to this question –and the deeper meaning of Rashi on ve’eleh hamishpatim--is that the Torah is written in this manner in order to emphasize that the mishpatim (primarily civil laws) are also from Sinai.

We might have mistakenly thought that these civil laws are simply a civil code, like any other civil code, and not inherently spiritual or divine.  After all, almost every society has a civil code.  To counter this notion the Torah places Mishpatim between the two narratives of the Sinai revelation in order to establish that at the center of our Sinai experience is the fundamental belief that all of our civil laws are Divine and transmitted in a holy manner.

Thus, according to this approach, we need to expand our image of the Sinai experience.  Sinai was not just about the Ten Commandments  It was also civil law.  The upshot is that the same way we run to perform mitzvot as a religious experience, we must also embrace the Torah’s approach to tort laws as a divinely commanded religious experience.

I accept this approach.  It makes sense to me and is a beautiful message.

But at the same time, I also see another approach –an almost opposite approach -- in the manner in which the Torah describes the Sinai narrative.

This approach does not expand the footprint and the reach of the Sinai expereince, but just the opposite—it limits it and deemphasizes it.

The closer we look at the matter the more we realize that the Torah is not clear in its description of certain key facts in the narrative of the actual giving of the Torah.  It is light on the details of the exact place and time of Sinai.

Indeed, we should not be talking about the “Giving of the Torah,” but the “Givings of the Torah.”

This week in our daf yomi group we came across the teaching that the Torah was given with three covenants (Berachot, 48b).  Rashi explains that this means:

Beshlosha mekomot natnah hatorah leyisrael, in three places the Torah was given to the Jewish people.  The three places are Sinai, Mount Gerizim, and the the plains of Moab.”

This begs the question as to why the Torah was needed to be given three times.  What was wrong with just once?

Furthermore, we know that the Torah never records the date on which the Sinai revelation took place.  Of all the dates of holidays in the Torah, the ONLY one that is shrouded in mystery is the actual date of the giving of the Torah.  The Talmud in Shabbat records a lengthy dispute about the date of Sinai:  “On the sixth of [Sivan] the Torah was given to the Jewish people.  R. Yosi said on the seventh” (Shabbat, 86b).

Why doesn’t the Torah tell us the date of the giving of the Torah?

Moreover, we don’t really know know where Mount Sinai is.

On this past trip to Israel, I asked several tour guides to take me to the actual Mount Sinai where the Torah was given.  They all smiled, shook their heads, and held their hands up as if to signal a lack of knowledge.

The Torah itself never gives us enough information to determine where Mount Sinai is. The Torah doesn’t describe what Mount Sinai looked like. And indeed, academic scholars put forth over twenty different suggestions as to the exact location of biblical Mount Sinai—primarily dividing between options in the Sinai Desert and the Arabian Desert, with some even suggesting that it is Libya.

The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is the greatest moment in history. How come the Torah doesn’t tell us exactly where it happened? Why isn’t that a place where we should do pilgrimages?

To recap: We don’t know where Mount Sinai is, we don’t know the exact date of the revelation, but we do know that the Torah was given on two other occasions, and in two other locations, in addition to Mt. Sinai itself.  This is why it seems to me that there is an intentional desire to deemphasize the Sinai experience.

Why would the Torah want to deemphasize the place of Sinai and the actual moment of the Sinai revelation.  Here are three suggested answers of our sages to this question.

1.The first answer is because the place of Mount Sinai has no intrinsic holiness.  It was not holy before the revelation, and it was not holy after the revelation.  It is only made holy during the revelation.     

The Chasam Sofer notes that the verse says that Yisro the father in law of Moshe came to visit Benei Yisrael: “el hamidbar asher hu choneh sham har haelokim” (18:5).  First Moshe camped there, and only then is the mountain identified as “the mountain of Gd.”  First he camped, and only then did the mountain become holy. It was through the encampment of Moshe and Benei Yisrael that the mountain became elevated and holy.

The Torah doesn’t identify the exact location of Sinai because it was irrelevant. It could have been anywhere. It was the presence of our ancestors there that made it holy.

This accords with a teaching in Taanit (21b) that states, “lo hamakom mekhabed et haadam ela adam mekhabed et mekomo.”

The message for us is that we must “make every PLACE holy.”  When we come to a place we  should not be a fly on the wall. We must make a difference for good. Hashem put us here for a reason. Wherever we go in life, whatever we do, when we come to a place our job is to ask the question: “How can we turn this place into Sinai?  How can we make this place holy?”

2.The second answer is because the moment of Sinai is fleeting.  Instead of celebrating the anniversary of that moment, we must be seeking to recreate the holiness of the moment in other places.

The pasuk tells us (19:13) that the benei yisrael were not allowed to go near Mount Sinai until Gd’s presence departed from the mountain. This departure was signaled by the sound of the shofar.  Bimshokh hayovel heimah yaalu behar.

Meshekh Chochma explains that immediately after the revelation at Sinai the holiness of the mountain disappeared. In order to teach the lesson that the holiness had left, the benei yisrael were immediately allowed on the mountain.

In one moment the mountain went from the holiest place on a earth to just another place.

Rashi tells us (18:5) that the Sinai revelation took place in a desert in order to praise Yitro that he was willing to leave his distinguished place and travel to a desert, a place of tohu vavohu in service of Hashem.

So too, we must follow Yitro’s example.  The moment the revelation ended the mountain lost all its holiness.  The reason is because we were being urged not to dwell on the past holiness of the Sinai experience but instead, to bring the powerful spiritual experience of Sinai to the deserts of the world. 

The message for us is that our job is not to return to Sinai, but to bring the teachings of Sinai to the places of tohu vavohu.

Too often people ask the question, where is it most comfortable for me to live religiously.  Instead the question we must be asking is where can I most impact the world spiritually.

Our job is not to visit Sinai, but to bring Sinai to the world.  We must be willing and eager to go to a desert in service of Hashem.


3.The reason why the Sinai experience as a singular event is not that important is because our whole lives need to be about recreating the Sinai expereince.  We need to focus on the Sinai that lives in our souls.

At the end of our parasha the pasuk states: “U’mareh kevod hashem ke’eish ochelet, the appearance of the Glory of Hashem is like a consuming fire” (Shemot 24:17).

Kedushas Levi teaches that it is our job to feel this consuming fire inside ourselves.  When it comes to our service of Hashem, we need to be on fire!

“When a person wants to know if indeed one is acting in accordance with Gd’s desires with one’s service of Hashem, then the clearest sign of this is if one feels in one’s heart a burning fire to serve Hashem. The challenge to us is if indeed we will see the glory of Hashem in our service, and if it is a burning fire.  If it is cold then that is a sign that we are very far from the will of Hashem.”

We must push ourselves to feel the fire of Hashem in our service of our Creator.  Sometimes we can get lost in the day to day.  Our goal must be to keep the Sinai fire burning brightly inside of us every single day. 

So the actual moment and place of Sinai is deemphasized because it is our job to make every place a place of Sinai, every moment a moment of Sinai, and to make sure the fire of Sinai burns brightly inside our souls.

These goals won’t just happen on their own.  We need self-reflection, preparation, and effort to achieve these goals. 

I leave you with one story from my trip about a group of people whose fire burned brightly even in the darkest of places.

While in Israel we spent one afternoon at the Museum of the Underground.  Today it’s a museum but it used to be a prison cell for Jews who were involved in the resistance against British rule over Palestine.

As I walked through the cold halls of the museum I imagined the brave young men who were imprisoned there with no heat, no beds, barely any food, and very harsh conditions.  But through it all their passion and commitment remained strong and served as an inspiration to the pioneers fighting for the Zionist dream—so much so that Menachem Begin asked to be buried on Mount of Olives next to two of these prisoners—Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani.  I wondered how these holy prisoners were they able to keep their spirits up.  Then we came to the prison synagogue.  For over twenty years, the prisoners there were visited on a regular basis by a great rabbi, Rabbi Aryeh Levin.  He prayed with them, he counseled them, and he inspired them.  He brought Sinai to them.  He stoked the fire in their hearts.  He was credited by the prisoners with being their inspiration.

Physically they were in a prison.  But thanks to Rav Aryeh Levin, spiritually they were at Sinai.

Our job is to bring the fire of Sinai even to the darkest places of the world.  

We can’t all be as great as Rabbi Aryeh Levin, but we can all aspire to emulate his traits.  Our job on this earth is to bring the fire of Sinai to the world.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783