The Torah in Parashat Yitro tells of Benei Yisrael’s encampment at Mount Sinai, where God later revealed Himself to them and presented the Torah. We are told in the introduction to this section that Benei Yisrael arrived at Sinai after journeying from their previous station, Refidim – “They journeyed from Refidim and arrived in the Sinai desert” (19:2). The Mekhilta comments that the Torah makes this comment for the purpose of comparing the nation’s experiences journeying from Refidim and their experiences at Sinai: “Just as when they traveled from Refidim they angered the Almighty and in a brief moment repented and were accepted, upon their arrival at the Sinai desert, too, they angered the Almighty and in a brief moment repented and were accepted.”
In both Refidim and Sinai, Benei Yisrael angered God, faced the dire consequences of their wrongdoing, and then earned forgiveness through teshuva. In Refidim, Benei Yisrael complained about the lack of water and questioned whether God was with them helping them (“Ha-yeish Hashem be-kirbeinu” – 17:7), whereupon Amalek attacked (see Rashi to 17:8). During the ensuing battle, Benei Yisrael turned their eyes and hearts upwards to the heavens in prayer (Mishna, Rosh Hashanah 29a), and they defeated the enemy. Likewise, in Sinai, Benei Yisrael worshipped the golden calf, whereupon God decided to annihilate the entire nation and produce a new nation from Moshe (32:10). Moshe interceded on the people’s behalf, they repented, and they earned God’s forgiveness.
What might be the significance of this comparison? Why did the Mekhilta find it necessary to draw our attention to this similarity between the events in Refidim and those in Sinai?
The answer, perhaps, can be found in what is likely the most significant difference between the nation’s experiences in Refidim and in Sinai, namely, Matan Torah. Unlike in Refidim, at Sinai Benei Yisrael beheld God’s revelation and heard Him proclaim the Ten Commandments. They underwent an unparalleled transformative experience, which Chazal compared to resurrection (Shabbat 88b). No such event transpired in Refidim. The Mekhilta perhaps draws our attention to the fact that the same process of spiritual failure and recovery which the people went through in Refidim was necessary at Sinai, after Benei Yisrael received the Torah. As transformative as the experience of Matan Torah was, it did not result in perfection. The people were still capable of sinking to the depths of idolatry, from which they then had to climb to regain God’s favor. Despite the dramatic and inspirational spectacle of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the process of Refidim still had to be repeated.
The Mekhilta’s message, then, is that there is no point at which we are guaranteed not to stumble and fall. Mistakes occurred at Sinai after Matan Torah just as they had previously. We are always prone and susceptible to mistakes, regardless of how much we have grown and accomplished, and regardless of what kind of meaningful experiences we have undergone. The process of struggle and growth must be ongoing, throughout our lives, and does not end even after experiencing something as powerful and transformative as Matan Torah.