The Date of Revelation
The awesome events of last week's Parasha, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the smashing of Pharaoh's overwhelming war machine in its murky depths, continue to reverberate through the text as the people of Israel begin their trek towards Sinai. Entering the arid and unforgiving wilderness, they are sorely tested first by thirst and then by hunger, trials soon relieved by the sweetened waters and by the descent of the miraculous manna, but trials recurrently imposed in order to impress upon them the fundamental truth enunciated by Moshe some forty years later in the Book of Devarim:
He (God) afflicted you and made you hunger, He fed you the manna that you did not know, neither you nor your ancestors, in order to inform you that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by all of the words of God's mouth does man live! (Devarim 8:3).
Upon reaching Refidim, after an arduous desert march through the barren and monotonous landscape of Seen, Dofka and Alush (see BeMidbar 33:8-14) the people are once again stricken with thirst. This time, their contentious craving is quenched as Moshe strikes the impervious rock at God's behest and water gushes forth. But other more ominous dangers lurk in the shadows of Refidim's craggy clefts, for unexpectedly the nomadic tribe of Amalek attacks. The cruel marauders, descendants of 'Esav that arrive from afar bearing ancient animosities, are repulsed by a combination of young Yehoshua's heroic tactics and aged Moshe's impassioned prayers, but not before they have inflicted painful losses upon the old, weak and infirm that straggle at the rear of Israel's encampment.
YITRO AND THE REVELATION AT SINAI
With the opening of this week's Parasha, the tone abruptly changes, for while it too describes a journey through the wilderness by a non-Hebrew seeking to rendezvous with the people of Israel, this time the noble visitor bears neither weapons nor warfare but rather words of encouragement and prayers of gratitude:
Yitro the priest of Midian, who was Moshe's father-in-law, heard about all that the Lord had done for Moshe and for His people Israel, for God had taken Israel out of Egypt…Yitro was joyous concerning all of the good that God had done for Israel, that He had saved them from Egypt. Yitro said: 'Blessed be God who saved you from Egypt and from Pharaoh, for having liberated the people from the control of Egypt. Now I realize that God is greater then all other gods…(18:1-10).
The arrival of righteous Yitro, sincerely motivated by a desire to join his destiny to Israel's, to embrace their God and His laws, not only provides us with a glaring contrast to the attack of Amalek narrated at the conclusion of last week's Parasha, but also serves as the fitting introduction to the pivotal event of this week's reading: the revelation at Sinai and God's proclamation of the Decalogue.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE EVENT AND THE MYSTERY
It goes without saying that the revelation at Sinai constitutes not only one of the most pivotal episodes in Sefer Shemot, but in the entire Torah as well. In fact, all of subsequent Israelite and Jewish history, even the moral progress evident in human history at large, hinges upon it. Without the revelation at Sinai, not only is there no people of Israel, no concept of binding commandments communicated by the Deity to them, and no mission on their part to introduce God and His laws to the larger world, but there is also no concept of a Higher Authority, no absolute and transcendent moral principles, and no notion of a spiritual dimension to inspire human existence. It may be stated without exaggeration that the revelation at Sinai represents the most important event in the history of human ethical and spiritual development.
What is most remarkable about the entire Sinai narrative is that while the Torah breathlessly introduces the encounter, describes its unfolding stages in exhaustive detail, and paints a bold and unforgettable image of that moment's impact upon the people of Israel, it entirely neglects to inform us concerning what must surely be its most critical technical aspect – the date upon which it occurred! This glaring omission is especially troubling given the fact that the Torah, by the time that the people reach Sinai, has already provided us with a precedent for its awareness and concern with times and dates, namely the new calendar day upon which the Exodus from Egypt had occurred.
PESACH AND SUCCOT
Recall that on the eve of the Exodus, as the final plague was about to descend upon recalcitrant sun-worshipping Egypt with terrifying effect, God described to Moshe the new lunar mechanism for marking time:
God spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: this month shall be for you the first of months…speak to the entire congregation of Israel saying that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household…it shall be guarded until the fourteenth day of this month, and then it shall be slaughtered by the entire assembly of the congregation of Israel in the afternoon…This day shall be for you a memorial, and you shall celebrate it as a festival to God, for all of your generations as an eternal statute…you shall observe this day for all of your generations as an eternal statute. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening you shall eat matzot, until the twenty first day of the month at evening…(12:1-18).
Every subsequent mention in the Torah of the Passover festival always provides this one salient fact of when the observance takes place, and rightly so. An event as important as the exodus from Egypt must be anchored in the collective conscience of the people of Israel by assigning it a yearly date for its commemoration. Similarly, the festival of Succot that recalls the temporary and tenuous dwellings constructed by the people during the cooler months of their wilderness sojourn, is also assigned a specific date, namely the fifteenth day of the "seventh month" as recorded in Sefer VaYikra:
God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say that on the fifteenth day of this seventh month, the festival of Succot shall be celebrated to God…But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, at the time when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of God for seven days…in order that your future generations may know that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in succot when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I am God your Lord…(VaYikra 23:33-44).
At first glance, of course, these two events – the Exodus and the wilderness sojourn – seem to bracket what must surely be the core episode, namely the Sinaitic revelation. But while these other two are allocated specific dates and observances, the "festival of Sinai" is given none! The effect is of course heightened once we realize that exactly six months separate Pesach from Succot, the former marking the onset of Spring time and the latter the onset of the Fall. In other words, while Pesach and Succot serve as the seasonal and chronological markers for Israel's year, acting as the proverbial poles between which all of their other national commemorations are observed, the axis of rotation itself – the events of Sinai that are positioned at the center of the mechanism – is left curiously under-defined.
CONSTRUCTING A CHRONOLOGY FROM THE TEXT
From the text itself, it is possible to construct a reasonable chronology of events. The introductory verses state that:
In the third month of the people's exodus from Egypt, on this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai. They journeyed from Refidim and they came to the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. The people of Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. Moshe ascended to the Lord…(19:1-3).
Thus, it emerges that the people reach the wilderness of Sinai in the third month (Sivan), and encamp at Sinai "on this day." This latter expression is of course tantalizingly obscure, prompting most of the commentaries (basing themselves upon much earlier Rabbinic traditions) to posit that it is a reference to Rosh Chodesh or the first day of the month. After all, how else to explain a definite reference to a definite calendar day that is mentioned in the context of the "third month" but is otherwise undefined?
However, even succeeding in anchoring the arrival at Sinai to the first day of Sivan does not entirely alleviate the difficulty. While it may be possible to roughly reconstruct the ensuing chronology by tracking the consecutive ascents and descents of Moshe (19:3-9) and then adding to them the two days of Divinely imposed preparatory sanctification (19:10), to then assume that this NECESSARILY yields the currently celebrated 6th day of Sivan is utterly unwarranted. What can only be stated with certainty is that the revelation takes place "on the third day" after those two days of preparation, a fact that is stated no less than three times (19:10,11,16). In short, even granting that it may be possible to plausibly connect the celebration of the giving of the Torah to a particular day on the calendar, albeit by engaging in a rather spirited session of hermeneutics, in the end, this only serves to highlight the grand omission: the text has not only failed to explicitly mention the specific date of the giving of the Torah to the people of Israel, it seems to have intentionally obscured it under successive layers of ambiguity.
STEPS IN THE PROCESS
Recall that when Moshe was first pressed into service as the liberator, under Divine compulsion at the burning bush on Sinai's summit, God had indicated to him His plans for the people:
I have gone down to save them from Egypt and to bring them up from that land, to a land that is good and expansive, to a land flowing with milk and honey…(3:8).
But while the entry into the Promised Land had thus been presented from the outset as the final goal of the emancipation process, there was to be a critical intermediate step. God introduced the nature of this transitional stage when He sought to allay Moshe's fears and misgivings concerning the success of his mission, by pledging to the neophyte that:
…I will be with you, and this is the sign that I have sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, then you shall serve the Lord upon this mountain.
In other words, God indicated, the journey to Canaan and to statehood would require encamping at Sinai along the way, and there the people would "serve God." The nature of that imminent encounter was subsequently spelled out with greater precision after Moshe's first failed mission to Pharaoh. Recall that in the aftermath of that debacle, Moshe had returned to God full of frustration and disappointment. God, in turn, had encouragingly responded that Pharaoh would very soon send forth the people with "a strong hand," for the awesome plagues would soften his obduracy. God then went on to remind Moshe of His pledge to the patriarchs to give the land of Canaan to their descendants Israel, and enjoined the prophet to so indicate to the people:
Therefore, tell the people of Israel that I am God, and that I shall extricate you from under the burdens of Egypt and I shall rescue you from their labor, and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with awesome punishments. I shall take you to Me as My people and I shall be your God, and you will know that I am God your Lord who extricates you from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall then bring you to the land that I swore with an oath to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov, and I shall give it to you as an inheritance, for I am God (6:6-8).
SINAI AS THE MISSING LINK
Here again, the exodus from Egypt was expressed in terms of "extrication," "rescue" and "redemption," to be followed by "bringing to the land" of Canaan and "inheritance," just as God had suggested at the burning bush. But this time note that the text inserted an intermediate step, for after the exodus from Egypt but before the entry into Canaan, the Torah states that God would take Israel as His people and He would become their God, and only then would they "know" or understand that it was in fact He who took them out of Egypt. The language of the passage is of course unmistakably similar to what is stated in this week's Parasha, as God addresses the people encamped at the base of the mountain on the eve of the revelation:
…And now, if you will diligently hearken to My voice and observe My covenant, then you shall be My treasured people from among all of the nations, for the entire world is Mine. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…(19:5-6).
It therefore emerges that the "service" at the mountain concerning which God had initially suggested to Moshe would take place after the exodus, is none other than the "taking as a people" that He had then spelled out later after Moshe's first mission. Both of these somewhat oblique references, in turn, constituted a foreshadowing of their receptiveness to His overtures at Mount Sinai and His revelation of the commandments to them as described in our Parasha! In other words, the two bracketing milestones in the people's development – the exodus from Egypt on the one hand and the entry into Canaan on the other – were to be cohesively linked by the transformative experience of standing at Sinai to serve God and to receive His teachings.
THE REVELATION IN PERSPECTIVE
The answer to our query is thus crystal clear. The Torah nowhere spells out the exact date of the pivotal event of the revelation at Sinai because it understands that the transformative experience of hearing God's voice and accepting His instruction is not a freestanding and disconnected episode, but rather THE CULMINATION OF THE EXODUS AS WELL AS THE NECESSARY PREPARATION FOR ENTRY INTO THE LAND. And while we tend to intuitively assume that the commands of the Torah, the essence of the Sinai event, may be even observed in splendid existential isolation from time and place, we fail to realize what we may forfeit in so doing! For if we are in reality enslaved to people or to things, even while we technically observe the mitzvot with devotion, then we have not internalized the true significance of Sinai following on the heels of the exodus: there cannot be profound spiritual liberation unless there is first physical liberation from Pharaoh's bonds. We well understand (and this is what is typically emphasized in any discussion of the matter) that physical liberation from slavery is a superficial accomplishment at best if it is not followed up by spiritual liberation as well, by dedication to a higher mission, to personal growth and character development, to the fostering of an awareness that there is more to life than meeting one's quota of bricks. What we may appreciate less is the converse of that axiom, namely that true spiritual liberation, liberation of the soul and of the mind to serve God and to mature, cannot take place while one's body is still in thrall to physical overlords, be they tyrants of the political variety or of the ideological.
At the same time, the acceptance of the Torah is an invitation to sanctify a place, to enter the land and to live a comprehensive life that encompasses every fact of the human experience. Can the Torah truly be said to have been observed when all decisions relating to the municipal, regional or national level have been made by others who act without any input from God's teachings? Is Torah, the transformative experience of Sinai, meant to be confined to the home, the day school, and the synagogue while remaining completely insulated and detached from the street? Again, we stand at Sinai not only to live a unique moment that we then preserve in memory and in deed, but to prepare for the mighty task ahead: to forge ourselves into a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," it being clearly understood that kingdoms and nations require a land. To put the matter in more familiar perspective, while we may absentmindedly speak of the Torah's 613 commands, imagining that we must be fulfilling most of them, we may not realize that LESS THAN HALF of the mitzvot are observable outside of Israel and while the Temple is in ruins!
Perhaps this then is the answer to the seeming mystery of the Torah's reticence concerning the date of the revelation. While we may in practice celebrate the festival of the giving of the Torah on the 6th day of Sivan, we must not lose sight of the fact that this date (that itself was more fluid before the setting down of an exclusively astronomical calendar) was not recorded in proverbial stone. Sinai was presented by the narrative, from the very outset, as representing the end of the exodus from Egypt and the beginning of the entry into Israel. To live Sinai is therefore to live within a dynamic of not only striving for personal spiritual liberation but for fulfillment of national mission as well.
For further study: consider that the agricultural aspect of the festivals – the onset of Spring and the barley harvest for Pesach, the beginning of the wheat harvest for Shavuot – also reinforces the theme. In the comprehensive treatment of the festivals recorded in VaYikra 23, only the holiday of Shavuot is presented without a date, for it is to be observed after the completion of the counting of the "seven weeks." The end of this seven week period, of course, when counted from the Pesach festival as demanded by the Torah, corresponds exactly to the beginning of Sivan. This provides further "proof" for the traditional association of Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai, while cohesively linking its observance to the events of the Exodus. One may of course explore the matter further by considering the theme of "harvest" that animates both festivals, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. See the author's archived article on Parashat Emor titled "The Festival of the Harvest."