Monday, January 20, 2014


Exodus 21:1−24:18

Rabbi Howard Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Approaching Torah
This week's parashah, Mishpatim, is the continuation of the events that occurred at Mount Sinai. As you may remember from last week's d'var Torah, many classic interpretations are based on the principle that there is no real chronological order to the Torah. An interpretation written by Rashi (12th century France) on this week's parashah again uses this device to interpret the narrative. For Rashi claims that Exodus 24:1-12, which appears to occur after the giving of the 10 commandments, is actually a "flashback" to the events that occurred in the days prior to the revelation at Sinai. In these verses Moses recounts to the people all the words of God and the people ratify the covenant by stating "all that God has spoken we will do" (v. 3). Moses then writes down the "words of God" and reads "the account of the covenant ... in the ears of the people [and the people then respond] 'all that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear'." After this section Moses is then told by God to "go up to the mountain and remain there, that I may give you tablets of stone with the instructions and the command."

It seems plausible to read the text using Rashi's chronology. But the question that must then be asked is "what are the words that Moses wrote down and then read to the people if the Ten Commandments had not yet been given?"

According to Rashi, Moses writes down the narrative of the Torah "from the Creation to the Giving of the Torah." In other words, before receiving the Torah the people hear Moses recount to them the "history of the world" from Creation up until that very moment. Upon hearing this they then respond not only "all that God has spoken we will do," as in v. 3, but "we will do AND we will hear" (24:7).

In her discussion of this commentary Aviva Zornberg ("The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus") discusses various commentaries that emphasize the importance of narrative and narration. Something occurs when we hear a story told to us as opposed to simply reading it ourselves. Upon hearing the words from Moses the people are then "committing themselves to a rearticulated relationship with the world of the past, and declaring themselves ready for the new laws of Sinai." In this way "we will do and we will hear" is interpreted as 'we will do all that has been told to us already (the limited laws and rituals prescribed in the Torah prior to Sinai) and now we are prepared to hear the new covenant that you are about to give us that is the culmination of all that has come before it' (my interpretation of Zornberg's interpretation of Rashi's interpretation - and so the chain of interpretation continues!). Rashi also cites an interpretation of Shemot 19:1 "On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai" which states that "on this day" is meant to remind us "that the words of Torah should be new in your eyes each day."

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