During Torah service at Camp Ramah in the Rockies, aliyot are broken up by an opportunity for people to ask questions. This is a highly effective tool in getting kids (and counselors let’s be honest) to follow along with the Torah reading. It also helps that questions asked are rewarded in chocolate. In fact, more intriguing questions warrant more candy, and bonuses are given for things like speaking in Hebrew and intertextuality.
So here is my question: when is Israel actually given the Torah?
Over and over again, Moses says something to the effect of, “Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws which I command you this day” (Devarim 27:10). This quote, from our parsha, says that Moses gave the Israelites the laws (or at least a portion of them) today – some thirty nine years after Sinai. However, tradition always told me we received the Torah at Sinai!
In thinking through this conundrum, I looked back at the Sinai narrative (here comes the intertextuality). As it turns out, I found many similarities between the two sections.
Both sections include instruction to inscribe the laws on stones tablets (Shemot 24:12/Devarim 27:4).
Both stories contain commands to erect altars built of unhewn stones (Shemot 20:22/Devarim 27:6).
In both, we are told that observing the laws will make us a holy people and nation (Shemot 19:6/Devarim 26:19).
While the two narratives are very similar, there remains one major difference – the method of transmission and reception. At Sinai, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking” (Shemot 20:15). Whereas in our section, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel!” (Devarim 27:9).
In one, Torah is received through pomp and circumstance – in the other, through calm stillness.
Beyond the question sessions during Torah service, I spent much time at Ramah walking among the stunning snow capped peaks of the Rockies. In doing so, I often experienced amazement at the sheer grandeur of all that surrounded me. I witnessed thunder and lighting, finding great humility in surrendering to God’s mighty power. However, it was only through slowing down that I felt the force of the wind challenging my balance, that I heard the river washing away the mountain’s surface, and that I perceived underfoot, the mountain’s immense stability in the face of it all. Only through pursuing silence was I able to hear.
My question was, when do the Jewish people receive the Torah? Our two sections lead me to believe that the Israelites receive instruction on multiple occasions. Perhaps the Torah was given at Sinai and then, over and over again. Moreover, I hear Moses and the levitical priests charging me to be silent – to “Hear, O Israel.”
When we are able to listen, inscribe what we hear in stone, build altars out of actions unhewn by coercion or expectations, and truly act as a holy nation – that will always and forever be the day where we, “became the people of the Lord your God” (Devarim 27:9).