18.1. Negotiating the Conditions for the Giving of the Torah (19:1-6)
(1) On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.
(2) Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain,
(3) and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:
(4) ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.
(5) Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine,
(6) but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
(1) On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai: Since they left Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month (first new moon) and then traveled the second half of the first month and the entire second month, until the first day of the third month; thus a month and a half passed since the Exodus.
(2) Having journeyed from Rephidim: The onset of the war with Amalek occurred in Rephidim (17:8). The Jews now journey from there to Mount Sinai. That is, only after emerging victorious from the war with Amalek can they become a nation in the full sense, and be capable of receiving the Torah, which they could not have before.
They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain: While it is not apparent from the English translation, there is a stark contrast in the Hebrew between “They entered … and encamped” and “Israel encamped there,” which in the original Hebrew text are, respectively, vayachanu (plural) and vayichan (singular). Why this difference?
It means that the Jewish people embody, simultaneously, the plurality of their encampment in the wilderness, and the unity of their (very same) encampment opposite Mount Sinai.
This is symbolic of the nature of the nation who will soon receive and continue to preserve the Torah. They must be externally united, but at the same time also internally diverse, having a variety of points of view and approaches to life.
(3) And Moses went up to God: Here we are told that Moses has already ascended the mountain to God. But don’t we see clearly from verse 7 onward that Moses continues to interact with the people up until the time of the actual Revelation event, which occurs only in the next chapter?
We should therefore understand this verse to mean that Moses partially ascended and descended the mountain not just once, but even several times. Or we can take the ascent mentioned here as saying that Moses “went up to God” in a prophetic vision, without actually moving physically from his place.
The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: God is negotiating, as it were, with the people. Before concluding the actual agreement (i.e., the Covenant), it is necessary to discuss its basic principles and obtain the people’s consent. The Almighty communicates the basic principles of Jewish chosenness and mission, and Moses acts as the mediator in these negotiations.
Although at this preliminary stage, the acceptance of the Torah is described as free — later, at the giving of the Torah, there is also an element of coercion (see verse 17 and commentary below).
(4) You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me: This is a summary of the first stage of the Exodus, which established justice, opening the path to the second stage, advancement toward holiness.
I bore you on eagles’ wings: This metaphor expresses God’s protection of Israel against attack by their enemies. An eagle protects its chicks by placing them on her wings, because she flies higher than the predatory birds that are a threat to them.
(5) Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant: There are two levels of relating to God: Obeying Him (in the normal course of life by adhering to His ideals and principles) and keeping the Covenant (observing God’s commandments and laws). Both of these are critical, but the ideals must always precede the commandments.
You shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine: God cares for all of humanity, and all people are important to Him. But precisely because He wants all of mankind to advance to a new, higher stage of development, God has appointed the Jews, His chosen people, as His “assistant” in that undertaking. The purpose of Jewish chosenness, i.e., the mission that the Jews received on Mount Sinai, is to advance humanity toward the Divine light.
(6) But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests: A priest works not for himself, but for the people he serves, showing them their path to God. And likewise, the Jewish people exist not for themselves, but for humanity.
A kingdom of priests: The Jewish people can realize their mission only as an independent national entity, which is the “kingdom.” They can serve as the “priests of mankind” only as a complete and unified organism, and not as that kingdom’s individual representatives.
And a holy nation: The goal of the Jewish mission is realized not only in the elevated spirituality of individuals, but in achieving holiness among all the peoples of the world collectively as one unified “nation.” And since only a nation can advance a nation – individuals are not capable of that – the implementation of the universal Jewish mission is directly related to the existence of the Jews as an independent national and political entity.
Even when the Jewish people are scattered beyond the borders of their Land, they can still prepare for implementing the Jewish mission. But the actual realization of that mission is possible only from within the Land of Israel.