This week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, begins: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1). At the end of our reading, we conclude the Torah’s third book with: “These are the mitzvot that the Lord commanded Moshe for the children of Israel at Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34).
What exactly do we understand happened at Mount Sinai?
This question was posed to me 40 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Columbia University. The religion department professor was Jewish, but anti-Orthodox, and my yarmulke made me the perfect foil for his acerbic rhetorical questions. “David,” he asked, “were you taught at your yeshiva that the entire Torah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“So explain to me this: The Torah reports in Numbers 13 that 10 evil spies were appointed by Moses to scout the Land of Israel. It also reports that they came back with an evil report, prompting a disastrous national response, leading God to punish the entire nation with 40 years of wandering the desert. Well, if Moses was given the entire Torah at Mount Sinai, didn’t he know in advance the problems those 10 specific men would cause? So why did he appoint those specific spies when the time came?”
I was on the spot. Because almost all yeshivas do a miserably inadequate job preparing their students to encounter the real world after graduation, I was not quite prepared to answer with erudition. However, I also did not want my own abysmal ignorance to bolster my cynical Columbia professor’s fabricated construct. So I just responded: “Why don’t you pick on someone else besides the guy wearing the yarmulke?” That, and I changed my class registration to “pass-no pass.”
I began a lifelong journey that day to learn all the things that yeshiva never taught me. The journey led me to a career as a rabbi, a Torah teacher and toward teaching Jewish teens for several years on the East Coast. (In Los Angeles, I am stymied. Liberal yeshivas consider me too right wing, and the others consider me too left wing; so, I teach adults and I write.)
My life journey began with the question: Why, indeed, did Moshe designate the 10 wrong spies who would cause disaster if he already knew at Mount Sinai, where he was given the entire Torah, the disaster that would unfold? More to the point: What exactly did he receive and learn at Sinai?
Here is what I did not know that day in college, correcting a profound misconception about Orthodox Jewish belief.
We do not believe that God gave or taught Moses at Mount Sinai the narrative substance of the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Rather, we believe that God devoted 40 days atop Mount Sinai teaching Moshe all the laws of Judaism. In 960 hours, while Moshe neither ate nor slept, he was transfixed by the oral teaching — literally, the oral Torah — that set forth every law of Judaism. The fullness of the Shabbat laws and their 39 forms of proscribed creative work. The fullness of the kosher laws, including requirements for kosher slaughter. It was not a time devoted extensively to teaching about history, but primarily about law: Halachah l’Moshe MiSinai — law handed down to Moshe at Sinai.
When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, he came down with that teaching — the oral law. Over the next 39 years, the five books — the written law — came into being. God would instruct Moshe to start taking dictation, and Moshe would get quill and papyrus and start writing. God would dictate, even letter by letter, and Moshe would write. “And this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Jews by the word of God, [written] by the hand of Moshe” (Devarim 4:44, Bamidbar 9:23). One rabbinic tradition is that sessions of Divine dictation took place respectively after discrete events transpired during the peregrinations. The other tradition is that the entire dictation and transcribing happened toward the end of Moshe’s life.
So Moshe had no idea, when he descended Mount Sinai, what would happen later with the spies. Rather, he came down filled with the knowledge of the laws to transmit for the generations. This oral law would be transmitted verbally, unwritten, from Sinai until the time of Rome, when the mass murder of rabbinic greats necessitated integrating the teachings as the six sections of Mishnah.
That is what we understand happened at Mount Sinai.
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