Rupture and Renewal
The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) stands prominently among those commentators who directed their efforts to revealing the larger literary themes and narratives within the Torah. Using each book's name of in rabbinic literature, the Netziv provides an overview to that book's overriding idea. In his introduction to Sefer Shemot, he suggests the following theme:
It is not for naught that he (Rabbeinu Bachye) called this book "Chumash Sheni" (literally – the Second Chumash) … for what distinguishes this book is that it is the second part to the book of the beginning of creation, and the process of creation is completed with this book … this is the purpose of the entire world, that one nation should become Hashem's portion. This process only concluded when the Jewish people left Egypt and arrives at their purpose, to be a light to all the nations. We find that the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah are creation's final step, as the Midrash states: "Hashem made the creation conditional – if the Jewish people accept the Torah, all will be fine. If not, the world will return to a state of chaos and confusion."
The Netziv understands our parasha's central feature, the Giving of the Torah, as more than the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt, or the fulfillment of the promises and covenants that Hashem made with the forefathers. The ceremony at Har Sinai was nothing less than the final step of the creation of the world. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah's demands, commandments and values, the universe was complete. All of human history had transpired for this moment; every event received meaning and purpose.
Reading chapter 19, however, we notice a strange anomaly. The Torah introduces the people's arrival at Sinai as follows:
In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. (19:1)
Missing, however, is the customary transition. Normally, the Torah would read, "And it was in the third new moon." The Meshekh Chokhma points out that this style of introducing a new historical event is unparalleled in the Torah, and suggests a fascinating explanation:
Someone who investigates will note that [this opening] has no equal in the Torah. Missing is the customary "vav ha-chibbur" (the connective) … yet here, it begins as it does in Breishit (the beginning of the Torah). This is a proof to Rashi's contention that chapter 24 occurred before the Giving of the Torah … and the Book of the Covenant refers to all of Sefer Bereishit until Chapter 19 of Shemot. From here onwards is a new beginning, and therefore it is written disconnected from what came before …
We first note that the Meshekh Chokhma offers literary support for Rashi's assertion regarding the ordering of the sections. To emphasize the difference between the pre-Sinai and the post-Sinai, the Torah left a fissure – the missing vav. There is a disconnect, a moment of rupture, between everything that occurred before the Revelation, and everything that followed.
What purpose does placing Chapter 24, with its famous rallying cry "All that Hashem has said, we shall do and we shall hear!" before the Giving of the Torah? After all, the people have not yet heard Hashem speak! The 19th century Chassidic commentator, the Ma'or ve-Shemesh makes the following suggestion to this quandary. According to Rabbinic thought, Hashem first gave the Jewish people a body of laws at Mara, when they first thirsted for water after the Splitting of the Red Sea. These laws include the seven Mitzvot Bnei Noach – or what is commonly called "natural law." These laws, which include the requirement to honor ones parents, establishing courts of law, injunctions against murder, sexual immorality and theft; all these laws form the basis of almost every civilization. Even the act of keeping a day of rest is found in almost all societies. According to the Ma'or ve-Shemesh's reading, the people now recognize that the force of these laws lies not from being derived by a pragmatic, natural morality, but in the fact that they are given "by the Creator's command." To explain this, the Ma'or ve-Shemesh quotes a Midrash brought by Rashi at the beginning of the chapter (19:1):
"On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai." - On this day, not on that day? This comes to teach you that the words of Torah should be new in your eyes each day.
The Midrash bases the concept of the Torah's everlasting newness on one word – "this." Each reader throughout history is connected to the experience of "this" day, where he/she becomes a part of the receiving of the Torah, as if for the first time. The Ma'or ve-Shemesh questioned the efficacy of this equation. For a person living after the Giving of the Torah, there is a need to feel as if Hashem would give the Torah over that day for the first time. However, what about the Jewish people who had just arrived at the Sinai desert. How can they, before the Torah is given, serve as a paradigm of the Torah's eternal freshness? He suggests that before Hashem could reveal the Torah, the people had to arrive at an understanding that their relationship to the commandments that they were already practicing was inadequate. From within them came forth a desire to reinterpret the old rules with new meaning; to transform them from societal customs to living reflections of the will of Hashem. The eternal newness of Torah comes not from a new intellectual revelation, but from an internal desire to renew and strengthen a relationship with Hashem. Even obedience to old customs, mores, and habits must be discarded. To fully accept and receive the Torah, nothing more than a complete break with the past will do.