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Reading Midrash -
Lesson 16

Between Sinai and the Mishkan Vayikra Rabba 1:9-12

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 1:9 is a short piece which continues the theme of Moshe’s greatness relative to other prophets.



Had He not also called Adam?

Why, it is already said, “And the Lord called unto Adam” (Gen. 3:8)!

Well, it is not undignified for a king to speak with his sharecropper.



Had He not also spoken to Noach?

Why, it is already said, “And God spoke unto Noach” (Gen. 8:15)!

Well, it is not undignified for a king to talk with his herdsman.



Had He not also called Avraham?

Why, it is already said, “And the Angel of the Lord called unto Avraham” (Gen. 22:15)!

Well, it is not undignified for a king to speak with his innkeeper.



and not as with Avraham.

In Avraham's case it is written, 'And the angel of the Lord called unto Avraham,' i.e. the angel it was that 'called' and the divine word that 'spoke',

but here - said R. Avin - the Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'It is I who call and I who speak,' as it is said, “I, even I, have spoken, yea, I have called him. I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous” (Isa. 48:15).


The midrash compares Moshe to three earlier prophets: Adam, Noach and Avraham. Each time the midrash seeks to establish that it was a greater honor for God to speak with Moshe than with any of his predecessors.


Underlying this section is an implicit mashal. Just as it is beneath the dignity of a king to speak with a commoner, so, too, it is beneath God’s dignity to speak with a mortal. The fact that God spoke to Moshe is, thus, a sign of tremendous honor. However, the midrash asks, did not God also speak to Adam, Noach and Avraham? The midrash compares these cases to instances where a king speaks to one of his employees. Adam is compared to a sharecropper, because he took care of the Garden of Eden. Noach is compared to a herdsman, or, according to some interpretations, a ship’s captain. Either way, this refers to Noach’s work on the ark.  Avraham is compared to a king’s innkeeper, recalling the hospitality he offered the angels. In all of these cases, the midrash argues, it was not a true honor that God spoke to them, because God did so as part of his professional relationship with his underlings. Only in the case of Moshe did God forge a true personal relationship with His prophet.


Between Sinai and the Mishkan


The midrash now presents a series of short pieces that deal with the relationship between God’s giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the revelation that took place in the Mishkan. All of these readings focus on the words “ohel mo’ed” in Vayikra 1:1. This is the first time God speaks to Moshe from the Mishkan as opposed to Mount Sinai. The midrash seeks to understand the significance of this switch.


1:10 A Mashal



Said R. Eleazar: Even though the Torah was given as a fence at Sinai, they were not punishable in respect thereof until it was repeated in the Tent of Meeting.

This may be compared to an edict which has been written and sealed and brought into the province, but in respect whereof the inhabitants of the province are not punishable, until it has been clearly explained to them in the public meeting place of the province.

So, too, with the Torah: even though it was given to Israel at Sinai, they were not punishable in respect thereof until it had been repeated in the Tent of Meeting.

This is indicated by what is written, ‘Until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of my teaching (horati, literally = my parent)’ (Song of Songs 3:4).

'My mother's house' means Sinai;

'The chamber of my teaching' means the Tent of Meeting

for thence Israel were commanded the teaching [i.e. the Law].


Like previous examples we have seen, the midrash here deploys a mashal in order to help us understand the first verse in Vayikra in the context of specific previous and subsequent verses. As is so often the case, the midrash here sets out to explain an apparent redundancy in the Biblical text. Usually such redundancies involve the repetition of a single word or phrase. In this case, however, the midrash is dealing with a redundancy on a massive scale. The Torah states that God revealed His laws to Moshe both at Mount Sinai and in the Mishkan. According to peshat, some laws were revealed in one locale and some in the other, with only a few cases in which the same law was repeated in both places. The rabbis, however, understood that the entire Torah was revealed twice - once on Mount Sinai and once in the Mishkan. This begs the question: what purpose does this double revelation serve?


The midrash presents a mashal that help us understand the relationship between these two events. Unlike the previous meshalim, this mashal does not involve the character of the king’s trusted advisor. This is because the rabbis are not concerned here with the role of Moshe. Moshe plays the same role both on Mount Sinai and in the Mishkan.  Our concern here is with the nature of the divine word and its relationship to the Mishkan. As such, the main characters in this mashal are a royal decree and a public meeting place. The mashal explains that a royal decree may be signed and sealed, but the people are not liable for violating this law until it has been posted and taught in public. The mashal thus posits a narrative relationship between two stages of the legislative process. The first stage makes the law official. However, since no one knows about the law, they cannot be held liable for violating it. Only once the law has been publicized does the law truly come into effect.


This gives us a framework for understanding the relationship between the revelations at Mount Sinai and in the Mishkan, When God gave the Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai, it was in a private place, separate from the people of Israel. Though technically the laws had been given, Israel could not be held responsible for them because they had no way of knowing about them. It was only after the laws were revealed in the Mishkan, located at the heart of the Israelite encampment, that they became liable for violating them.


Some readers may notice that there is a gap between the mashal and the nimshal. In the mashal, the writing of the decree is a necessary prerequisite for the reading of the decree. If the decree is never written it cannot be read. In contrast, the midrash never explains why it was necessary for God to give the Torah first at Mount Sinai. Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to give the Torah only once, in the Mishkan?  This is a question for further study.


The midrash concludes by citing a verse from Song of Songs, which it interprets in light of the mashalChazal understand Song of Songs as metaphorically describing various events in the history of Israel’s relationship with God, especially the splitting of the Red Sea and events on Mount Sinai. Generally speaking, the male lover is identified with God, while the female beloved is identified with Israel. In this case, the dramatis personae are understood slightly differently. The beloved remains Israel, but the lover is understood here to refer to the Torah. The midrash understands this verse as referring to the giving of the Torah, metaphorically described as the beloved bringing home her lover.


Once again we have a redundancy. Why bring him home both to her “mother’s house” and to her “parent’s chamber”. According to peshat this is simply a poetic repetition. However, Chazal read according the principle of “omnisignificance,” that every detail of the text must be independently meaningful. The “mother’s house” and the “parent’s chamber” must, therefore, refer to two distinct locales. The midrash has little trouble identifying these places as it has already established that the Torah was given in two separate locations, Mount Sinai and the Mishkan. Furthermore, the midrash understands the word horati not as “parent” but as “instruction,” from the word hora’a.  This recalls the fact that it was only in the Mishkan that Israel was commanded and became obligated in the mitzvot.


The midrash thus retells the story of how the Torah was given twice - once at Sinai and once in the Mishkan - no less than three times. First, we have the verses from the Torah itself. However, these verses do not in and of themselves explain the relationship between the two revelations. Hence the mashal is introduced to establish that it was only after the Torah was given the second time did it become binding. Finally, this narrative is retold through the Song of Songs verse.


1:11 The Nations and the Mishkan


R. Joshua b. Levi said:

Had the heathen nations of the world known how excellent a thing the Tent of Meeting was for them, they would have encompassed it with encampments and fortifications.

One finds that before the Tent of Meeting was erected, the heathen nations of the world, on hearing the voice of divine speech, rushed in fright out of their camps.

This is [indicated by] what is written, “For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived” (Deut. 5:23).

R. Simon said: The divine speech went forth in two diverse characters: it went forth as life unto Israel, but as a deadly drug to the [heathen] nations of the world.

This is indicated by what is written, “Did ever a people hear the voice of God... as thou hast heard, and live?” (ib. 4:33).

One deduces: Thou hast heard and lived, but the heathen nations of the world heard and died.


indicates that the [divine] voice was cut off [by the walIs of the Tent of Meeting], and did not go outside the Tent of Meeting.


This passage continues to develop the theme of the relationship between the revelation at Sinai and the revelation in the Mishkan. It further begins to develop a motif that will become important in the final sections of our parasha: the relationship between the nations of the world, prophecy and the Mishkan. The passage opens with a curious statement, that had the nations understood how great the Mishkan was for them, they would have surrounded it with soldiers and fortifications. Why would they do such a thing? The simple reading is that they would do so in order to protect the Mishkan from attack. However, one might also deploy military forces around a locale in order to besiege it, to insure that those inside don’t get out. I believe that there are elements of both motivations in the Gentiles’ hypothetical behavior.


The midrash then goes on to explain the great value of the Mishkan to the Gentiles. When God spoke at Mount Sinai His voice went forth into the world. The Gentiles could not withstand His voice. Those who heard it died a painful and gory death (I am following Merkin’s interpretation of this line). Note that the prooftext from Devarim does not suggest that that anyone actually died from God’s word. It only says that the fact that the Jews survived hearing God’s word on Sinai was a miracle. The simple peshat is that only people in the vicinity of Mount Sinai heard God and hence the Gentiles were spared. To the midrash, God’s word was apparently audible to the Gentiles as well. The difference between the Jews’ fate and the Gentiles’ fate was all too real. For Jews, the word of God is a life-giving elixir, whereas for Gentiles it is a deadly poison. Prophecy is a fundamental dividing line between Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles have no special relationship with God.


The period of Mount Sinai was thus one of disequilibrium. Though God’s word was only meant for the Jews, it spread throughout the world, wreaking havoc. The Midrash does not explain why God did this. It may be to teach the Gentiles a lesson, but note that the midrash at the outset emphasizes that the Gentiles do not really understand the significance of the Mishkan.


It is only with the construction of the Mishkan that this danger ends. The Mishkan functions like a sort of divine echo chamber, which contains the word of God, preventing it from getting out to places where it will do harm. Equilibrium is thus restored as prophecy is restricted to those who benefit from it.


Ultimately then, the Gentiles should have an ambivalent relationship with the Mishkan. On the one hand, the Mishkan symbolizes the Gentiles’ exclusion from prophecy. On the other hand it also protects the Gentiles from the potential dangers of God’s prophecy. The Gentiles’ hypothetical military encampment around the Mishkan might be seen as reflecting this duality. They seek to protect the Mishkan from outside threats, but also to protect themselves from the word of God that is within the Mishkan.


1:12 Non-Jewish prophets


R. Isaac said:

Before the Tabernacle was set up prophecy was current among the heathen nations of the world;

after the Tabernacle was erected it departed from them,

as it is said, 'I held him, and would not Iet him go until I had brought him... into the chamber of her that conceived me' (Song of Songs 3:4).

They said to him: But Bil’am prophesied [after the erection of the Tabernacle]?

Said he to them: [Yes, but] he prophesied for the good of Israel;

e.g. ‘Who has counted the dust of Jacob’ (Num. 23:10),

‘None has beheld iniquity in Jacob’ (ib. 21),

‘For there is no enchantment with Jacob’ (ib. 23),

‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob’ (ib. 24:5),

‘There shall step forth a star out of Jacob’ (ib. 17),

‘And out of Jacob shall one have dominion’ (ib. 19).


This section suggests yet another relationship between the nations of the World, the Mishkan and the institution of prophecy. According to this version, Gentiles are not inherently excluded from prophecy and, indeed, for many centuries there were Gentile prophets. Here, the erection of the Mishkan marks not the protection of the Gentiles from prophecy, but their exclusion from it.


In order to prove its case, the Midrash returns to the verse in Song of Songs cited above in 1:10. That verse describes how the beloved grabs hold of her lover and brings him to her parents’ home. As before, this verse is understood as referring to the giving of the Torah - first on Mount Sinai and ultimately in the Mishkan. This time however, the midrash focuses on the open clause of the verse, that the beloved aggressively grabs on to the lover, refusing to let go. The midrash understands this as indicating an exclusive relationship between the prophetic voice and the people of Israel. Previous to the revelation in the Mishkan, prophecy was not the sole domain of the people of Israel. As we have already noted, Adam and Noach were prophets and the midrash seems to assume that there were other non-Jewish prophets as well. It was only with God’s calling out to Moshe in the Mishkan, that prophecy became the sole domain of the Jewish people.


This notion that prophecy among the Gentiles ceased at the time of the giving of the Torah makes good theological sense. Once God established His covenant with Israel, it makes sense that only they would be recipients of prophecy. However, this theory ignores the fact that the Torah describes in detail the activities of a Gentile prophet in the generation following the giving of the Torah: Bil’am. The midrash asks about this exception to the rule of no Gentile prophets after Sinai. It responds by slightly altering its claim. It is not that prophecy can only be received by Jews; rather, prophecy exists only in relationship to the Jewish people. Bil’am’s prophecies all were for the benefit of Israel; hence, this is not an exception to the post-Mishkan reality of prophecy.


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