20.3. Moses Ascends Mount Sinai (24:12-18)

(12) The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.”

(13) So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God.

(14) To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”

(15) When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain.

(16) The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

(17) Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.

(18) Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

(12) The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them”: We see here several parallel channels for transmission of the Divine teachings:

  • Tablets” are the Ten Commandments written on the tablets of stone.
  • Teachings” means the Written Torah.
  • Commandments” is a system of keeping the commandments, i.e., the Oral Torah.

In addition to those, Tradition sees here two more additional channels for transmitting the Divine teachings in words:

  • Which I have inscribed” are the Prophets and the Ketuvim (Hagiographa) that supplement the Torah;
  • To instruct them” is the learning system that was later permanently enshrined in the Talmud.

Thus, God from the very outset, already at Sinai, has given Moses all these five channels for transmitting the Torah. And all future texts of Judaism will be created based on them.

(13) So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God: Although the Almighty had instructed Moses to ascend the Mountain alone, Joshua accompanies Moses the first part of the way, and remains halfway up the mountain to wait for him.

(14) To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them”: During the war with Amalek (17:9-10) the disposition was rather different: Joshua fought Amalek in the valley, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur stood at the top of the hill, psychologically and spiritually supporting the battle. But here, there is a separation of leadership, a temporary breach of communication between Moses and Aaron. As it turns out, Aaron in isolation from Moses will not be able to contain the people, which will lead to the creation of the golden calf.

(15) When Moses had ascended the mountain: Moses had ascended, and Joshua remained halfway up the mountain, between the camp and the summit.

The cloud covered the mountain: To Moses, the Divine presence has the appearance of a cloud.

(16) The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud: Even Moses needs an additional six days to “acclimatize” himself. This is his inner preparation for the ascent.

(17) Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain: To the people, the Presence of the Lord has the appearance of a consuming fire. In other words, for them the Torah represents fire: rigidity, law, and coercion. This fire consumes everything that comes near it. The people therefore keep their distance, not venturing to approach.

For Moses, however, the Presence of the Lord is a cloud – water, life, and grace. Moses can therefore ascend the mountain.

Even today, the Jews’ relationship to the Torah, and the possibility of their individual “ascent to the summit of Mount Sinai,” likewise depend on how they view the Torah – whether they see it as fire or as water.

(18) Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights: The giving of the Torah continues with Moses ascending Mount Sinai, to remain there for forty days and forty nights. This is a fairly long interval, and can only mean that there is still something else of great significance that Moses must receive there, and then convey to the Jewish people. We will see from the following portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh, that this “something else of great significance” is the Temple, which is a “Mount Sinai in miniature,” thanks to which the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, will continue to rest on the people of Israel.

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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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