20.2. The Procedure for Concluding the Covenant (24:1-11)

 (1) Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar.

(2) Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”

(3) Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!”

(4) Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

(5) He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord.

(6) Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar.

(7) Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!”

(8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.”

(9) Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended;

(10) and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.

(11) Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

(1) Then He said to Moses: The description given here of the concluding of the Covenant concludes with Moses ascending the Mountain (24:15-18) – the same as was indicated at the Giving of the Torah, which likewise concludes with Moses ascending the Mountain (20:18).

This signifies that the concluding of the Covenant as recounted here, and the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, are one and the same event, being described merely from two different points of view.

Just as the first and second chapters of Genesis give us two different accounts of the Creation, and our task there is to highlight the differences between the two versions, and to extract from them two different perspectives on humankind, so here too, by focusing on the differences between the two descriptions we can derive a multidimensional picture of this pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people.

In this commentary, we shall first examine in detail the text of this second description (of the concluding of the Covenant), which we will then summarize in a high-level comparison of the two Torah portions.

(1–2) Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu: Only the elder two of Aaron’s four sons are mentioned. It was they who were at that time what we would call “the up-and-coming spiritual leadership of the new generation.”

And seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar. Moses alone shall come near the Lord; but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him: Moses could rise to the very highest level, to “come near the Lord.” Aaron, his sons, and the elders could only “bow low from afar,” an intermediate level. And the nation as a whole could only stand well below, at the foot of the mountain.

(3) Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!”: The people agree to observe the commandments. But at first, they have no desire to understand the meaning of those commandments.

(4) Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel: In order to advance the people, Moses takes action in two directions: (1) He commits the words of the Almighty to writing, so that the Jews can deliberate on the text of the covenant and discuss it among themselves. (2) He sets up an altar and twelve pillars, whose symbolism demonstrates at once Israel’s unity and also diversity.

(5) He designated some young men among the Israelites: These were the firstborns, apparently, who at that time served as priests.

And they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord: The burnt offerings were completely burnt on the altar, and the “offerings of well-being” were eaten by the people as “a banquet with the Almighty,” as it were.

(6-8) Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar … Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands”: The Covenant between God and the Jewish nation is concluded as a contract “signed with blood.” In other words, the penalty for failure to comply is death.

(7) Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people: While concluding the covenant, Moses reads its essential points to the people, thus instructing them to be always mindful of their actions in order to remain in compliance.

There are various opinions as to what Moses read aloud, whether it was the whole Torah from the beginning up to the Yitro portion, or the social statutes of the Mishpatim portion, or simply the Ten Commandments. These approaches differ in their understanding of the actual essence of the covenant – in whether it embodied, respectively, the history of the world and the Jewish people, human social institutions, or general religious principles.

And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!”: Literally translated, na’aseh ve-nishma means “we will do and we will hear” (or “listen”). But nishma can also mean “we will understand.” The people now want also to understand the commandments. This desire to understand arose only after Moses had read them the book of the Covenant.

“All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!”: Jewish tradition takes special note of the word order, as meaning: “First we will do, even if we don’t yet understand and will only later come to understand.” This is of course a higher level than the previous one (v. 3, where the people were committed to doing, while making no mention whatsoever of understanding). But even this higher level is still not high enough.

We often encounter a viewpoint that considers the words na’aseh ve-nishma – “we will do and we will understand” – the true Jewish ideal. But this opinion is very one-sided.

It is true that that approach (“do, in order that you will understand”) is genuinely important at any initial stage, because it is impossible to genuinely understand until we begin to put our understanding into action.

Later in the Torah, however, in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses recounts the events of the giving of the Torah, he reverses the word order and quotes the Jews as having said, “We will listen and we will do” (5:24, literal translation). By this approach, one needs first to understand before he can do – a more advanced level, wherein the action is carried out through understanding that has already been acquired. We will discuss this point in more detail in the Bible Dynamics commentary to Deuteronomy.

(9) Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended: Only the most advanced element of the community is involved in this ascent. Nevertheless, it is a model to which all should aspire, and in future times (the Messianic era) the entire Jewish nation will rise to that level.

(10) And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity: They have achieved an advanced level of prophetic vision.

And they saw the God of Israel: This is the Almighty as He is manifested to the world through His people Israel. Thus, they saw the Divine light as realized by the Jewish people’s realization of their mission in the course of world history.

Under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity: Livnat ha-sappir means, literally, “brick of sapphire.” The Divinity manifesting Itself to the world through Israel is supported on bricks of sapphire, symbolizing eminently constructive work that uses materials of the highest quality. And “like the very sky for purity” indicates that the foundation of Divine work is a pure and lucid value system (the term “heaven” is often used in the Torah with this connotation).

They beheld God, and they ate and drank: Although they ascended to an exceedingly high level of Divinity, they did not become “spirits.” They maintained their thoroughly material, human existence – “they ate and drank.” Their meal is in all respects comparable to the meal of the “sacrifices of well-being” of which the people at the foot of the mountain are partaking (v. 5).

As we have already mentioned[1], there was a widely held belief in the world at large that “seeing God” necessarily leads to death. The Almighty here shows the people that this is not so, that the ideal is not to depart from this life, but, rather, to combine and integrate the material and the spiritual.

Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites: The expression “He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites” is usually understood to mean that he caused them no harm, which would mean that they committed some wrongful act, but God forgave them for that. However, this interpretation cannot be supported by the context of the passage.

We can therefore interpret this verse (albeit in a sense that is rather atypical for the given expression) as “He did not extend His hand to them,” that is, He did not bestow on them the gift of prophecy. Or, that God did not extend His hand in order to conceal Himself from them (as the Torah says later about Moses himself, 33:22: “as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by”). In all events, this would mean that although “they beheld God,” “they ate and drank,” that is, they remained ordinary, normal human beings, just as they had been before.

[1] See §17.2 above, and Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §23.9.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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