SHEMOT 23:20 - 24:18

Eitz Hayim 474; Hertz 319; Plaut 589

David B. Brooks - Adath Shalom - Ottawa - 13 Feb 2010

What a come-down is this third of the Parashah in the triennialcycle!  For the first two years, we gothrough a long sequence of laws and regulations incumbent upon the Israelitesfor managing work, slavery, injuries, property and behaviour B a text so importantthat it is sometimes called Code of the Covenant.  Then, in this final third, we are back towhat Rabbi Plaut calls ACultic Ordinances@ (587).  However, as part ofthose cultic ordinances there are two re-affirmations of TheCovenant.  While the first is cele-bratedwith the usual sacrifices, the other is celebrated in a format more familiar tous, and I will come back to that point at the end.  But, first, those two re-affirmations.

Our portion begins with God telling Moses that an angel is going tobe sent to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  As Susan Landau-Chark pointed out a few weeksago, at this point God is doing all the talking and Moses has trouble evengetting in a word in these bilateral meetings. How different it is when Moses is talking to the Israelites!  Whatever Moses might have meant when he toldGod at the burning bush that he had a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue (Shm4:10), Moses now has no problem at all with public speaking.  The text (Shm 24:3) says that he came beforethe people and told them all the commands and all the rules that God has setout for them to follow.  As he presumablyhopes they will, the Israelites agree to Ado all that the Lord has commanded.@  Indeed, the text seems tosay that their agreement was unanimous ($(!-&8.3%<-,03*&).  Then and only then doesMoses write down all of God=s commands (24.4).  Clearly, theIsraelites were already a literate people with a culture based on written, notarbitrary, laws and regulations.

This is the first re-affirmation.  The original affirmation came in the previousparashah, Yitro (Shemot 19:8), when God has informed Moses of what the peopleneed to do to prepare themselves for the Theophany, the time at which they willin some sense be close to God and receive the Ten Commandments.  Moses passes on the instructions to thepeople, and they had answered at that time in much the same way and in almostidentical words that they would do all that God asked.  But just what had they agreed to do?  No doubt still somewhat shell-shocked fromthe events of the previous few weeks, and surely afraid of this God who doesnot hesitate to wield power, it is reasonable to suggest that they were willingto agree to anything.  However, if wetake their affirmation literally, they only agreed to prepare themselvesproperly for the Theophany; nothing more. Perhaps implicitly they accepted everything that was to come afterwards,and, if so, that was understandable but it was not, as we might say, a legallybinding contract.

Clearly there was a need for re-affirmation.  But just what they had agreed to in thissecond time through?  Again, we must readthe words carefully.  Moses had heard andrepeated aloud all the commands and the rules (respectively, d=varim or divrai haShemand misphatim).  Remember that it is an axiom of Jewishexegesis that no two words in Torah can have the same meaning.  As the note to 24:3 in Eitz Hayimexplains d=varim are categorical (Ayou shall . . .@) with enforcementleft to God; in contrast, misphatim are conditional (Aif - then@) with enforcement byhuman courts.  Now look carefully at howthe people answered Moses.  Thetranslation in Eitz Hayim is precise. They accepted all the commandsB ie, the d=varim; they said nothing about therules, the misphatim.

Did Moses notice the cautious response of the people?  He must have because the very next day, heinsists on a second re-affirmation. However, typically for our Torah, this qualified acceptance of theCovenant by the people is recorded even though it casts the Israelites in a badlight.  Indeed, it later became thesource of a major heresy in Judaism.  Inthe post-Biblical period, some groups were trying to throw off the AYoke of Torah,@ and they argued onthe basis of this text that only the Ten Commandments, or in other cases, onlythe categorical commands, are divine and therefore obligatory.  All the rest is human in origin, andtherefore open to adjustment or even revocation.  Jewish history does not report a lot oftheological heresies, but this is one of them.

Returning to the need for an unqualified acceptance of the Covenant,Moses for once keeps his cool.  He seemsto ignore the partial acceptance and orders a celebration for the nextmorning.  He also erects twelve pillars torepresent the 12 tribes.  We have no ideahow Moses spent the evening, but I see him calling together his most trustedsupporters and pointing out that everything he recorded came from God.  Not just the commands; the rules too.  He sends them out to talk, explain, argue,plead, cajole B whatever it takes B in order that the people think again, be less cautious. He mightwell have said (and meant it literally), AFor Heaven=s sake, do not blow your chance to become God=s chosen people.@

The next day, after a whole lot of burnt offering and of sacrificedbulls, Moses took the blood and divided into two basins.  (I am skipping over many details.)  The blood in one of the basins was thensplashed on the altar, an act which symbolically commits God to the Covenant.  Then Moses poses the question to theIsraelites for the second time in two days. He must have been nervous, for this time the Torah says that he read theCovenant (;*9"%952.) aloud to the people B literally, in their ears (24:7). This time the people answered in a way that is considered definitive,but even this third affirmation is not free of controversy.  For one thing, in contrast to the first twoaffirmations, there is no reference to unanimity.  For another, what they said was that everythingthe Lord has asked of us, we will do and we will hear (or listen): 3/:1&%:31.  Do first; thenhear/listen.  I found no commentary onthe absence of any words to indicate unanimity, but there is no end ofcommentary on the strange sequence of Ado@ and Ahear.@

1.  Eitz Hayim and thePlaut Chumash dodge the issue by conflating the two verbs and translating themas Afaithfully do.@

2.  Hertz and more traditional Chumashim translate thephrase as  Ado and obey.@  AObey@ is a possible translation of Ashma@ but, in the 3-volume Alcalay Hebrew-English dictionary, it is the lastof 11 possible meanings B very possibly only included because it works well as Ato do and obey.@

3.  Hertz says that Ato do@ refers to the what has already been said, and Ato obey@ refers toinstructions that may come in the future.

4.  Some commentaries say that Ado@ refers to commands; Ahear@= to rules.

5.  Other commentaries say that Ado@ refers to positivemitzvot; Ahear@ to negative.


Midrash claims that a heavenly voice pronounced that the wording 3/:1&%:31 is Aangel language,@ and that immediately thereafter 600,000 angels descended fromheaven and adorned every Jew present with two crowns, one for na=aseh and one fornishma.


With the force of all that support, who am I to suggest that it wasincautious to say Ato do and to listen.@  Perhaps I am too much of ascientist, too risk adverse.  Whateverany of us might say, it was the defining moment when the people of Israelaccepted finally and firmly their link to God and the Torah.  Moses, no doubt gave a great sigh of relief,and splashed the second basin of blood on the people (some say, on the 12pillars), which symbolically commits the people to the Covenant, which is thensealed.  The Israelites are, or at leastare starting to be, the Jewish people.


Let=s close the discussion by looking at the celebrations that followedeach affirmation. The first affirmation was not followed by any specialceremony.  Presumably, everyone wasgetting ready for the Theophany, and there was lots to do, including washingtheir clothes, purifying their bodies, setting boundaries etc.  The second affirmation goes to the oppositeextreme.  It is a big deal, witheverything one might expect in that era: dozens of animals slaughtered, riversof blood, and lots of priestly activities before an audience of six hundredthousand. Maybe Moses showed a few of the magic tricks he could do with hisstaff. All no doubt very impressive, but not exactly our kind of thing.

The celebration after the third affirmation is very  To start with, the human party does not consistof the pure democracy of 600,000 people, but the more republican form ofgovernment that Yitro had suggested to Moses (Shm 18:13 ff). Moses, Aaron,Aaron=s two eldest sons, and 70 elders go up to meet with God. This timethere is no sacrifice;  no splashing ofblood; no priestly activity.  Instead,the 74 men did what Jewish men and women have done ever since: They ate andthey drank!  From those words,Nachmanides (cited in Plaut 596) says the Asages derived the custom to make a feast whenever a unit of Torahstudy has been completed.@  To this, I would only add: AAnd on any other happyoccasion!@

Shabbat shalom,