The Declaration of Sinai

  • Rav Chanoch Waxman
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
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 Sinai.

  • 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)" (24:3)
  • 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 commands (24:8).


    If so, we need not be troubled by the "repetition" of the commitment mantra of "we will do" in Chapter Twenty-four.

    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 follows.

  • …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 (na'aseh)" (19:7-8)
  • 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 commit again?

    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 following.

  • …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 "…Let my 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 gone and bless me also. (12:31-32)
  • 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 desert.

    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 sacrifices.

    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 covenant"

    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.



    Further Study


    2. 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 46b.
    4. 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.
    6. 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.
    8. 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 shiur?




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