Jethro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard of all that G‑d did for Moses and His people Israel, that G‑d had taken Israel out of Egypt (18:1)
Of what did he hear that he came? Of the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek.
Jethro heard . . . and Jethro came . . . (18:1)
This is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 27:10) “Better a close neighbor than a distant brother.” “A close neighbor”—this is Jethro; “a distant brother” refers to Esau.
When G‑d said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt” (Exodus 4:19), “Moses took his wife and sons” (ibid., v. 20). When Aaron later met with him “at the mountain of G‑d” (v. 27), he said to him: “Who are these?” Said Moses: “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my children.” “Where are you taking them?” asked Aaron. “To Egypt,” said Moses. Said Aaron to Moses: “We are grieving over the ones already in Egypt, and you propose to add to their number!” So Moses said to Tzipporah, “Return to your father’s house,” and she took her two sons and went away.
This tells us that he had full knowledge of every idol in the world, for he had worshipped them all.
The Torah could not be given to Israel until Jethro, the great and supreme priest of the all pagan world, and confessed his faith in the Holy One, saying, “Now I know that G‑d is greater than all the gods.”
Every judge who judges with utter truthfulness even for a single hour, the Torah regards it as though he had become a partner with G‑d in the work of creation. For here it is written, “The people stood by Moses from the morning to the evening,” and [regarding G‑d’s creation of the world] it is written, “There was evening, and there was morning, one day.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 10a)
Why was Jethro called (in Exodus 4:18) Yeter? Because he added (yiteir) a chapter to the Torah.
On the first of the month [of Sivan], they arrived at Sinai . . . and on that day Moses did not say anything at all to them, on account of their exhaustion from the journey.
On the second day, he said to them, “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests . . .”
On the third day, he informed them of G‑d’s command to set boundaries [around Mount Sinai] . . .
On the fourth day, he commanded them to “sanctify [yourselves today and tomorrow” (Exodus 19:10) [following which the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan].
Rabbi Yosei says that the Torah was given on the seventh day of the month . . . Moses having added a third day of sanctification out of his own understanding.
All agree that the Torah was given on Shabbat. They differ only in that Rabbi Yosei says that the first of the month was a Sunday, while the other rabbis hold that the first of the month was a Monday.
(Talmud, Shabbat 86b–87a)
A most puzzling thing in the Talmud’s account is the fact that on the first day of Sivan—the day on which the people of Israel arrived at the place where they would receive the Torah—“Moses did not say anything at all to them, on account of their exhaustion from the journey.” For six weeks the children of Israel had been eagerly awaiting the most important event in their history—their receiving of the Torah from G‑d. Our sages tell us that they literally counted the days (hence our annual practice of “counting the Omer” during the weeks that connect Passover to Shavuot). Does it make sense that on the very day they arrived at Mount Sinai they would do nothing at all in preparation for the great day?
At Sinai, the divine wisdom was revealed to man. Obviously, the human mind cannot attain the divine wisdom on its own—that must be given to it by G‑d Himself. So although G‑d instructed us to study His Torah, desiring that human intellect should serve as the vehicle by which we apprehend His truth, a crucial prerequisite to Torah study is the mind’s total abnegation of its ego. Only after it has voided itself of all pretension that it is capable of attaining the truth of truths on its own, can the mind become a “fit vessel” to receive it. In the words of the sages, “An empty vessel can receive; a full vessel cannot receive.”
So the day on which “Moses did not say anything at all to them” was an integral part of their preparations for receiving the Torah. This was the day on which they undertook the most “exhausting journey” of emptying their souls of intellectual vanity and making themselves fit receptacles for the divine truth.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
In the ownerless wilderness was the Torah given to the people of Israel. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.
Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end.
(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)
At all their other encampments, the verse says vayachanu (“they camped,” in the plural); here it says vayichan (“he camped,” in the singular). For all other encampments were in argument and dissent, whereas here they camped as one man, with one heart.
“The house of Jacob” are the women; “the children of Israel” are the men.
Why did He command the women first? Because they are the more diligent in the fulfillment of the commandments. Another explanation is: So that they should introduce their children to the study of the Torah.
Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea says: G‑d said, “When I created the world, I commanded Adam first, and only then Eve was commanded, with the result that she transgressed and upset the world. If I do not now call upon the women first, they will nullify the Torah.”
Said G‑d to them: “I require guarantors.”
Said the people of Israel: “The heaven and the earth shall be our guarantors.”
Said G‑d: “They won’t last forever.”
Said they: “Our fathers will guarantee it.”
Said He: “They are busy.”
Said they: “Our children will guarantee it.”
Said He: “These are excellent guarantors.”
A Galilean scholar lectured before Rabbi Chisda: “Blessed be the Merciful One, who gave a threefold Torah (consisting of Torah, Prophets and Scriptures) to a threefold people (comprised of Kohanim, Levites and Israelites) through a third-born (Moses, the third child of Amram and Yocheved) on the third day in the third month.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
The Torah is associated with the number 3, because the ultimate function of Torah is “to make peace in the world,” and 3 represents the concept of peace.
Peace is unity in diversity. The number 1 implies exclusivity and singularity; the number 2 connotes diversity and plurality; the number 3 represents a state in which the diversity of 2 is superseded by a third, encompassing truth, within whose context differences no longer divide, but rather unite diverse components into a harmonious whole.
This is the function of Torah: to introduce a unity of purpose to the diverse objects, forces and peoples of creation, uniting them all in the harmonious endeavor of serving the divine objective in creation.
(The Chassidic Masters)
At the Torah’s conclusion of its account of the creation of the world, it is written (Genesis 1:31): “There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” What is the purpose of the additional “the” (hashishi)?
(Regarding the other days of creation, the Torah simply says, “It was evening and it was morning, one day . . . a second day . . . a third day . . .” and so forth; “the sixth day” implies that the verse is referring to a certain famous “sixth day”).
This teaches that G‑d stipulated with the works of creation and said to them: “If Israel accepts the Torah (on the sixth of Sivan), you shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
This teaches that G‑d overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, there shall be your burial.”
Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov observed: This resulted in a strong legal contest against the Torah (since it was a contract entered into under duress). Said Rava: But they reaccepted it (out of their own, uncompelled choice) in the days of Ahasuerus, as it is written (Esther 9:27): “The Jews confirmed and accepted”—on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
“The voice of G‑d is in power” (Psalms 29:4). If it would have said, “The voice of G‑d is in His power,” the world could not survive it; rather it says, “The voice of G‑d is in power”—in accordance to the individual strength of each and every one of them. To the old according to their strength, and to the young according to theirs; to the children, to the babes and to the women according to their strength; and even to Moses according to his strength, as it is said: “Moses speaks, and G‑d answers him by a voice.”
Once there was a king who decreed: “The people of Rome are forbidden to go down to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to go up to Rome.” Likewise, when G‑d created the world, He decreed and said: “The heavens are G‑d’s, and the earth is given to man” (Psalms 115:16). But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms. And I Myself will begin”—as it is written, “G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,” and then it says, “To Moses He said: Go up to G‑d.”
Our sages tell us that the Patriarchs studied the Torah and fulfilled its precepts many centuries before the Torah was “officially” given at Sinai. Since no “new information” was revealed on the sixth of Sivan, what is the significance of the “giving of the Torah” on that occasion?
The answer lies in the above-quoted Midrash: at Sinai G‑d abolished the decree which had consigned the physical and the spiritual to two separate domains. Thus, at Sinai was introduced a new phenomenon—the cheftza shel kedushah, or “holy object.” After Sinai, when physical man takes a physical coin, earned by his physical toil and talents, and gives it to charity; or when he forms a piece of leather to specified shapes and dimensions, and binds them to his head and arm as tefillin—the object with which he has performed his mitzvah is transformed. A finite, physical thing becomes “holy,” as its very substance and form become the actualization of a divine desire and command.
The mitzvot could be, and were, performed before the revelation at Sinai, and had the power to achieve great things within the spiritual realm (by elevating the soul of the one who performed them, and effecting “unions” (yichudim) and “revelations” (giluyim) in the supernal worlds) and within the physical realm (by refining the object with which it was performed, within the limits of its natural potential). But because the mitzvot had not yet been commanded by G‑d, they lacked the power to bridge the great divide between matter and spirit. Only as a command of G‑d, creator and delineator of both the spiritual and the physical, could the mitzvah supersede the natural definitions of these two realms. Only after Sinai could the mitzvah actualize the spiritual and sanctify the material.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
When G‑d gave the Torah no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the angels stirred a wing, the seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. The whole world was hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth: “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”
With each and every utterance that issued forth from the mouth of G‑d, the souls of Israel flew from their bodies, as it is written (Song of Songs 5:6), “My soul went out when He spoke.” But since their souls departed at the first utterance, how could they receive the second one? G‑d brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead, and revived them.
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
In other words, even after they were revived by the divine “dew” following the first utterance, this did not suffice to keep body and soul together at the second utterance; the “dew” which enabled them to absorb the second utterance, did not suffice for the third; and so on “with each and every utterance.” This means that each utterance involved a greater revelation of divinity than the previous one. Thus the commandment “Do not murder,” for example, expresses an even loftier divine truth than “Remember the Shabbat” or “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Because G‑d appeared to them at the Red Sea as a mighty warrior, at Sinai as a sage teaching Torah, in the days of Solomon as a handsome lad, and in the times of Daniel as a compassionate old man, G‑d said to them: Just because you perceive Me in many guises, do not think that there are many gods. Rather, it is I who was at the sea, I who was at Sinai, I who is in every place—“I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”
Would it not have been more appropriate for G‑d to say, “I am the L‑rd . . . who created the heavens and the earth”?
But G‑d the creator is the G‑d that Israel shares with the rest of creation. At Sinai, G‑d did not speak to us as the author of nature, but as the executor of the miraculous Exodus. For at Sinai we forged a covenant with G‑d in which we pledged to surpass all bounds of nature and convention in our commitment to Him, and He pledged to supersede all laws of nature and convention in His providence over us.
(The Chassidic Masters)
In Deuteronomy 5 (where the Ten Commandments are repeated), it says, “Safeguard the Shabbat day.” “Remember” and “safeguard” (which represent the imperative and prohibitive aspects of Shabbat) were expressed in a single utterance—something which the human mouth cannot articulate and the human ear cannot hear.
(Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 27a)
This, too, is a divine decree. Just as the people of Israel were commanded to rest on Shabbat, so too were they commanded to work on the other days of the week.
Is it then possible for a person to do “all his work” in six days? But rest on Shabbat as if all your work is done.
There are three partners in man: G‑d, his father and his mother. When a man honors his father and his mother, G‑d says: “I consider it though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me.”
(Talmud, Kiddushin 30b)
(The commentaries point out that the Ten Commandments were engraved on two tablets—five on the first and five on the second. The first tablet contains mitzvot that are “between man and G‑d,” while the commandments on the second tablet govern the relationship “between man and man.” This means that the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” belongs to the category of “between G‑d and man”!)
And in Leviticus 19:3 it says, “Every man, his mother and father should fear. For it is revealed and known to G‑d that a person adores his mother more than his father, and that he fears his father more than his mother. G‑d therefore set the honor of one’s father first, and the fear of one’s mother first, to emphasize that one must honor and fear them both equally.
(Talmud, Kiddushin 31a)
How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on the second tablet. This means that “Do not murder” corresponds to “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.” The Torah is telling us that if one sheds blood, it is as if he has reduced the image of the King.
What is this analogous to? To a king of flesh and blood who entered a country and put up portraits of himself, made statues of himself, and minted coins with his image. After a while, the people of the country overturned his portraits, broke his statues and invalidated his coins, thereby reducing the image of the king. So, too, one who sheds blood reduces the image of the King, as it is written (Genesis 9:6): “One who spills a man’s blood . . . for in the image of G‑d He made man.”
Said He to them: “He has come to receive the Torah.”
Said they to Him: "This esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? . . . ‘What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You take notice of him? . . . Place Your glory upon the heavens!’” (Psalms 8:2–5)
Said G‑d to Moses: “Answer them.”
Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! I fear lest they consume me with the breath of their mouths.”
Said G‑d: “Hold on to the Throne of Glory, and return them an answer.”
Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? ‘I am the L‑rd your G‑d, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.’
“Have you descended to Egypt?” asked Moses of the angels. “Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? So why should the Torah be yours?
“What else does it say? ‘You shall have no other gods.’ Do you dwell amongst idol-worshipping nations? What else does it say? ‘Remember the Shabbat day.’ Do you work? . . . What else does it say? ‘Do not swear falsely.’ Do you do business? What else does it say? ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Do you have parents? What else does it say? ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal.’ Is there jealousy among you? Do you have an evil inclination?”
Immediately the angels conceded to G‑d . . . and each one was moved to befriend Moses and transmit something to him. Even the angel of death, too, confided his secret to him . . .
(Talmud, Shabbat 88b)
[For another version of this dialogue, click here]
They saw what is ordinarily heard, and they heard what is ordinarily seen.
(Midrash Lekach Tov; Rashi)
As physical beings, we “see” physical reality. On the other hand, G‑dliness and spirituality is only something that is “heard”—it can be discussed, perhaps even understood to some extent, but not experienced firsthand.
At the revelation at Sinai, we saw what is ordinarily heard—we experienced the divine as an immediate, tangible reality. On the other hand, what is ordinarily “seen”—the material world—was something merely “heard,” to be accepted or rejected at will.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
There are three types of darkness: the “heavy darkness” of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:17); the “tangible darkness” of the ninth plague in Egypt (Exodus 10:22); and the “thick darkness” at the giving of the Torah.
Iron was created to shorten the life of man, and the altar was created to lengthen the life of man. So it is not fitting that that which shortens should be lifted upon that which lengthens.
(Talmud, Middot 3:4)