Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Declaration of Sinai
By Rav Chanoch Waxman
Towards the end of Parashat Mishpatim, the
Torah recounts the striking crescendo of the revelation at Mount
And...(Moshe) took the book of the
covenant and read it aloud to the people. And
they said, all that the Lord has spoken we will
do and obey (na'aseh venishma) (24:7)
Although we tend to think, of na'aseh venishma, the
declaration at Sinai as a self contained and unique note of
unparalleled commitment, the Torah in fact portrays the
declaration not in isolation, but rather as part of a larger
symphony. Just a few verses earlier, before transcribing the
"book of the covenant," Moshe had told the people
"all the commands of God and all the rules" (24:3). The
Torah describes the people's response as follows.
and all the people answered
with one voice saying, "All the things that
the Lord has spoken we will do (na'aseh)"
In fact, we might well be justified in thinking of the famed
declaration of "na'aseh venishma" (24:7) as no more
than a repetition and slight expansion of the previous commitment
of "we will do" (24:3). But this need not trouble us.
Where as before, the commitment came in response to the verbal
report of Moshe, the second time around, as na'aseh venishma, it
comes as part and parcel of a formal covenant ceremony, the
covenant at Sinai (24:4-11). Mapping out the action of the core
verses of Chapter Twenty-four should clarify the matter. The
action breaks down as follows.
- The Preface- Moshe obtains the acquiescence (na'aseh) of
the people to the commands and rules of God. (24:3)
- The Covenant Preparations- Moshe writes down the
commands, builds an altar, erects twelve pillars
symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and sends young
men to offer sacrifices (24:4-5).
- Stage one of the covenant- Moshe collects half the blood
of the sacrifices in basins and pours the other half of
the blood on the altar (24:6).
- Stage two of the covenant- Moshe reads the just
transcribed "book of the covenant" and the
people respond with na'aseh venishma (24:7).
- Stage three of the covenant- Moshe sprinkles the
remaining half of the blood on the people and declares it
the blood of the covenant that was contracted on these
If so, we need not be troubled by the "repetition"
of the commitment mantra of "we will do" in Chapter
However, these are not the only two occurrences of "we
will do" at Sinai. Back in Chapter Nineteen, when the
Children of Israel first arrived at Sinai, Moshe immediately
ascended the mountain to confer with God (19:3). A short time
afterwards he returned to present the Children of Israel with
God's proposal. The Torah describes the ensuing events as
And he put before them all
the words that God had commanded him. And all the
people answered as one saying, "All that the
Lord has spoken (diber) we will do
The people have already proclaimed "we
will do" in response to God's speech and commands back when
first arriving at Sinai. Furthermore, just as in Chapter
Twenty-four, the story of "we will do" involves the
term and concept of covenant. The "na'aseh" of Chapter
Nineteen comes in response to God's offer of a covenant (19:5-6).
Finally, in both cases, the Torah depicts the people as
completely unified in their commitment. We are taught either that
"all the people answered together (yachdav)" (19:8) or
that "all the people answered with one voice" (24:3).
In sum, we seem to confront two stories of
"commitment" by the Children of Israel at Sinai. The
wholly unified commitment to the "dvarim," the words
and commands, of God, that took place at Mount Sinai seems to
have happened twice. While we need not be troubled by the
internal repetition of "we will do" in the second
commitment story, the "brit sinai" story of Chapter
Twenty-four (24:3-8), the relationship between Chapters Nineteen
and Twenty-four seems far more problematic. Why does the Torah
present us with two commitment stories? If the Children of Israel
have already committed previously, what constitutes the need to
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Glancing at the contexts of the commitment narratives in their
respective chapters should make us realize that Chapters Nineteen
and Twenty-four bear more in common than just containing
commitment stories. Both stories begin with a mention of Moshe
"going up" to God (19:3, 24:1), in other words
ascending the mountain. In fact, as a reference to ascending, the
stem ayin, lamed, heh, appears seven times in each chapter (19:3,
12-13, 20, 23-24, 24:1, 2, 9, 12-13, 15, 18). Moreover, the
thematic reverse, "descent" also appears in each
chapter. In Chapter Nineteen, God "descends" upon the
mountain (19:11, 18), and in Chapter Twenty-four he
"rests" upon the mountain (24:16). In both cases, the
presence of a cloud reflects and demonstrates God's presence upon
the mountain (19:9, 16, 24:15, 16, 18). Finally, in addition, in
both of these "Sinai" stories, God calls to Moshe
(19:3, 20, 24:16) and gives him Torah (20:1-14, 24:12).
While the parallels can be expanded even
further (see 19:20-24\24:1-2, 19:17\24:4, 20:24\24:4-5,
20:21\24:1), the point should be clear. We face not so much two
stories of "commitment" but two stories of
"Sinai," the story, of ascent, descent, revelation and
commitment at Mount Sinai. To rephrase the problem above, Why
does the Torah present us with Sinai-1 and Sinai-2? What
constitutes the meaning of the duplication and comprises the
connection between the two stories?
To the casual reader, the book of Shemot appears to be
organized by chronology. The book recounts the history of the
Children of Israel from their days of slavery until their
assembling of the tabernacle, at the end of the first year of
their journey. Along the way the varied events include being
redeemed by God from Egypt, the first journey in the desert, the
revelation at Sinai and the sin of the golden calf. From a
thematic perspective, the book could be roughly broken up into
three basic segments:
1) Slavery and Redemption (1:1-17:16)
2) Sinai and Torah (18:1-24:18)
3) The Tabernacle (25:1-40:38)
While this approach is fundamentally correct, the real story
is actually quite a bit more complex. Sefer Shemot is not only
organized by chronology but by certain conceptual threads that
weave their way through the various thematic units, knitting the
book together into a multi-hued yet fundamentally unified
tapestry. Let us focus on one of these strands.
When Moshe first stood in front of God at the mountain of God
at Horev, (3:1) and God revealed himself to Moshe through the
burning bush, Moshe asks: "Who am I that I should go to Paro
and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
(3:11). God's response seemingly consists of a command:
."..When you bring the people out of Egypt you shall serve
(ta'avdun) God on this mountain" (3:12). Whether one
interprets the latter part of Moshe's question as querying the
worthiness of the children of Israel (Rashi), doubting of his own
suitability for the mission (Ibn Ezra), or a request for
practical advice as to how to accomplish his task (Rashbam,
Ramban), the answer of God is clear. From the very start Moshe is
commanded to bring the people to serve God at Horev.
A bit later on, when God gives Moshe explicit instructions for
dealing with Paro, God commands Moshe to inform Paro of the
the Lord of the Hebrews has
called to us and now let us go a three days
journey into the desert so that we may sacrifice
(venizbecha) to God. (3:18)
Ever the faithful servant, when Moshe first
confronts Paro he informs him that God demands "
people go so that they may celebrate (veyachogu) to me in the
desert" (5:1). Throughout Moshe's dealings with Paro, the
prospcelebration, service and sacrifices, the composition of the
celebratory party, and the sponsorship of the sacrifices
constitute constant and recurring themes (8:16,21-24, 9:1,13,
10:8-11,24-26). Finally, after the final plague, the death of the
first born, Paro relents and informs Moshe to:
...get out from among my people,
both you and the children of Israel, and go serve
the Lord as you have said...be gone and bless me
Strangely enough from this point on, the prospective celebration
and service seem to disappear. Throughout chapters 13-18, which
detail the aftermath of leaving Egypt, celebration and sacrifices
are conspicuously absent. This might not perturb us at all. After
all, Moshe needed a negotiating strategy and the demand for a
religious holiday in the desert fit the bill quite nicely. Even
Paro might have acquiesced to a bit of spiritual devotion in the
However this seems insufficient. What really was the need to
lie? For that matter, in the original command to Moshe (3:12),
God specified "this mountain." In other words: har
elokhim horeiva, i.e. Sinai. At the very least, as of
Chapter Nineteen, when the Children of Israel arrive at Sinai
(19:1-3), we might well expect service of the divine, celebration
and sacrifices. A religious holiday and all it entails. Strangely
enough chapters 19-20, the revelation of the Ten Commandments at
Sinai, Sinai-1, contains no mention of service, celebration or
This brings us full circle to Chapter Twenty-four and the
formal covenant at Sinai. It is here, deep into the second
thematic section of Sefer Shemot, that the celebration and
service of God anticipated throughout the first section of the
book takes place. As part and parcel of Sinai-2, the formal
covenant at Sinai, the children of Israel erect an altar and
sacrifice to God (24:4-5). Furthermore, although not emphasized
previously, following the sealing of the covenant by the
sprinkling of the blood upon the people (24:8), the elders
experience a vision of the divine and consume a festive meal
(24:9-11). The religious ecstasy, the service, the sacrifices,
the celebration and the encounter with God that God commanded
Moshe and Moshe demanded from Paro take place in the context of
Sinai-2. In other words, they occur only in the context of the
formal covenant, the treaty contracted upon the "book of the
Let us turn briefly to the content of the covenant and the key
phrase we began with, "na'aseh venishma." The Children
of Israel, respond and commit to Moshe's reading of the book of
the covenant. This consists of the commands, "divrei"
and rules "mishpatim" (24:3) given to Moshe by God.
Seemingly, the "divrei" refers to the
"dvarim" spoken by God in chapter 20, the Ten
Commandments (see 20:1), and the "mishpatim" refers
to the rules given by God in chapters 21-23 (see 21:1). In other
words, the formal covenant at Sinai consists of
full-fledged and unconditional contractual commitment to the laws
of God. The religious ecstasy, service and sacrifices, the
encounter with God, takes place as part of the Children of
Israel's commitment to the law and only as part of their
commitment to the law.
Thinking about Sinai-2, the story of Chapter Twenty-four, as a
thematic crescendo, should help us resolve the problem of
parallelism, of the connection between Sinai-1 and Sinai-2 raised
earlier. Just as Sinai-2 constitutes the fulfillment of the
expectations for celebration and religious ecstasy raised back in
Egypt, so too Sinai-2 constitutes the fulfillment of the
expectations raised at Sinai-1.
Back in Chapter Nineteen, God offered the Children of Israel
the opportunity to become "my treasure from amongst all the
peoples" (19:5) and "to be to me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation" (19:6). All they need to do is commit.
Yet, what exactly constitutes the content, the implications of
this commitment? Moreover, at Sinai-1, it remains altogether
unclear what constitutes the means of being "treasured"
by God or of being priestly and holy. If anything, while the text
of Chapter Nineteen refers to "the priests who approach
close to God" (19:22) and are seemingly part of an elite
group allowed closer to the mountain, Moshe and God's presence,
the people are explicitly banished from the mountain (19:12, 21,
23). In fact, when God appears, the frightened people take flight
(20:15). In the end only Moshe "approaches close" to
God" (20:18). But how can one be a priest if one is banished
from the sanctuary? How can one serve the King if one cannot dare
approach his presence?
The story of Sinai-2 provides the answers to these questions.
The redo of Sinai takes the briefly mentioned covenant of Sinai-1
(19:5) and turns it into the essence of the Sinaitic experience.
It teaches that the commitment of the Children of Israel upon
first arriving at Sinai, their response of "na'aseh" to
the hazy promises of being treasured, priesthood and holiness is
yet incomplete. Only another "na'ase," the full form of
"we will do and obey," said in response to the book of
the covenant, comprises real commitment. Moreover, and more
importantly, the redo of Sinai teaches the crucial lesson as to
how to be treasured and holy. Priesthood for the people does not
involve ascending the mountain and approaching the presence of
God. Rather, priesthood for the people involves the sacrifices,
and the full commitment to the law of God that take place at the
bottom of the mountain, the second time around, at Sinai-2.
To close, Chapter Twenty-four constitutes not just the context
of "na'aseh venishma," not just a story of Sinai, but
also the dual fulfillment previous expectations. It brings to
completion and fruition, both the religious expectations of
celebration and sacrifice raised in the first third of the book,
throughout the exodus, and the relationship and commitment
expectations raised in the second part of the book. This appears
to be no accident.
The Torah wishes to emphasize that the various
forms and aspects of the spiritual quest are somehow united.
Religious ecstasy, sacrifices, and ascending to God on the one
hand, and covenantal commitment to the word of God on the other,
constitute harmonious rather than conflicting categories. Each is
somehow a necessary condition for and result of the other. The
Torah knows of no conflict between law and spirituality, between
beholding and celebrating the divine and the seemingly dry
legalism of the commands. No contradiction exists between the
spiritual quest, the encounter with God on a mountain, and
commitment to a code. The two categories merge together in the
text and in the overall experience of the Children of Israel.
Together they comprise the rationale, purpose and culmination of
the redemption from Egypt, a nation serving and celebrating the
divine, fully and absolutely committed to his word.
- This shiur has followed the opinion of Ibn Ezra and
Ramban that the events of Chapter Twenty-four occurred
after the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Talmud
(Shabbat 88a) maintains that the events portrayed in
Chapter Twenty-four occurred on the fifth day of Sivan,
before the revelation of the Ten Commandments. See Rashi
24:1-3, Ibn Ezra and Ramban 24:1. What might constitute
the motivation for this claim and its consequent
distortion of the chronological order of the Torah?
Reread chapters 24 and 19. See Shabbat 88a and Yevamot
- See Shemot, 40:38. How might this verse play a role in
uniting the latter two parts of the book? How does
chapter 24 constitute a link between the first and third
parts of the book? See 24:15-18.
- Reread 24:9-11. What constitutes the connection between
these verses and the remainder of Chapter Twenty-four?
Here are two possible directions. a) See Rashbam 24:11,
Breishit 15:17, 26:28-30, 31:54 and Shemot 33:23. b)
Consider the relationship between 24:9 and 24:1, 15. Try
to formulate the precise relationship between the ascent
and covenant elements in Chapter Twenty-four. Utilize the
ideas in the shiur.
- Review the similarities between Sinai-1 and Sinai-2
mentioned above. Reread 19:1-25 and 24:1-18. List the
elements presenin Sinai-1 and absent in Sinai-2. What do
the elements present in Sinai-1, and absent in Sinai-2
imply about the purpose of Sinai-1 as opposed to Sinai-2.
Does this mandate a different relationship between the
two "Sinais" other than that argued for in the
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