artwork: Jean Jeon Gerome, Moses on Mount Sinai
All right, we’ve finally arrived at Mount Sinai! And it only took 19 chapters and 20 episodes. As Daniel says, all the most famous midrashim speak to this moment of Exodus. In our discussion, we touch on cultural appropriation, our legacy to future generations, and what exactly the Holy Spirit is. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or many other fine podcast distributors, or listen to it with the player below. The midrash for this week is below the player.
There Israel camped opposite the mountain (19:2)
At all their other encampments, the verse says vayachanu (“they camped,” in the plural); here it says vayichan (“he camped,” in the singular). For all other encampments were in argument and dissent, whereas here they camped as one person, with one heart.
They camped in the desert (19:2)
In the ownerless wilderness was the Torah given to the people of Israel. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.
Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end.
(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)
4 You have seen: This is not a tradition that you have. I am not sending you this [message] with words; I am not calling witnesses to testify before you, but you [yourselves] have seen what I did to the Egyptians. They were liable to Me for many sins before they attacked you, but I did not exact retribution from them except through you. — [from Mechilta]
on eagles’ wings: Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings, for all other birds place their young between their feet since they fear another bird flying above them. The eagle, however, fears only man, lest he shoot an arrow at it, because no other bird flies above it. Therefore, it places them [its young] on its wings. It says, “Rather the arrow pierce me and not my children.” I [God] too did that: “Then the angel of God…moved, …And he came between the camp of Egypt, etc.” (Exod. 14:19, 20), and the Egyptians shot arrows and catapult stones, and the cloud absorbed them. — [from Mechilta]
All the people answered together and said: “All that G‑d has spoken we will do” (19:8)
Said G‑d to them: “I require guarantors.”
Said the people of Israel: “The heaven and the earth shall be our guarantors.”
Said G‑d: “They won’t last forever.”
Said they: “Our fathers will guarantee it.”
Said He: “They are busy.”
Said they: “Our children will guarantee it.”
Said He: “These are excellent guarantors.”
13 When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast: When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast,this is the sign of the Shechinah’s withdrawal and the cessation of the voice [of God]. As soon as the Shechinah withdraws, they are permitted to ascend [the mountain]. — [from Mechilta]
15 do not go near a woman: [to have intimacy with her] for all these three days [of preparation], in order that the women may immerse themselves on the third day and be pure to receive the Torah. If they have intercourse within the three days, the woman could [involuntarily] emit semen after her immersion and become unclean again. After three days have elapsed [since intercourse], however, the semen has already become putrid and is no longer capable of fertilization, so it is pure from contaminating the [woman] who emits it. — [from Shab. 86a]
17 toward God: [This expression] tells [us] that the Shechinah came out toward them like a bridegroom going out toward a bride. This is [the meaning of] what is stated: “The Lord came from Sinai” (Deut. 33:2), and it does not say, “came to Sinai.” -[from Mechilta]
They stood under the mountain (19:17)
This teaches that G‑d overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, there shall be your burial.”
Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov observed: This resulted in a strong legal contest against the Torah (since it was a contract entered into under duress). Said Rava: But they reaccepted it (out of their own, uncompelled choice) in the days of Ahasuerus, as it is written (Esther 9:27): “The Jews confirmed and accepted”—on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
20 The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai: I may think that He actually descended upon it. Therefore, Scripture says: “You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you” (Exod. 20:19). This teaches that [He did descend although still in the heavens,] He bent down the upper heavens and the lower heavens and spread them upon the mountain like a spread on a bed, and the Throne of Glory descended upon them [the upper heavens and the lower heavens]. — [from Mechilta]
G‑d came down on Mount Sinai . . . and G‑d called to Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (19:20)
Once there was a king who decreed: “The people of Rome are forbidden to go down to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to go up to Rome.” Likewise, when G‑d created the world, He decreed and said: “The heavens are G‑d’s, and the earth is given to man” (Psalms 115:16). But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms. And I Myself will begin”—as it is written, “G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,” and then it says, “To Moses He said: Go up to G‑d.”