[On the first of Sivan] Moses did not say anything at all to the Jewish people, since they were weary from the journey.

Talmud, Shabbat 86b

On the first day of the month of Sivan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), six weeks after the Exodus, the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. Six days later, the entire nation stood at the foot of the mountain as G‑d revealed Himself to them and gave them the Torah. Ever since, we celebrate the festival of Shavuot (Sivan 6–7) as “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.”

The nineteenth chapter of the book of Exodus describes this final week of preparation for the revelation at Sinai. Analyzing the Torah’s account, the Talmud (Shabbat 86b–88a) pieces together the following chronicle of events for these six days:

1 Sivan: Moses did not say anything at all to the Jewish people, since they were weary from the journey.

2 Sivan: At dawn, Moses ascends Mount Sinai. He brings back the following message from G‑d: “You have seen what I have done to Egypt, and how I bore you upon the wings of eagles and brought you to Myself. Now, if you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My chosen treasure from among all the nations, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4–6). With these words G‑d expressed His desire that we become His chosen people. The day is accordingly marked in our calendar as Yom HaMeyuchas, “The Day of Designation.”

3 Sivan:G‑d commands Moses to fence in Mount Sinai, marking the boundaries where everyone is to stand when G‑d reveals Himself upon the mountain and gives them the Torah. The kohanim (priests) may approach closer than the rest of the people, Aaron may approach closer than the kohanim, while Moses alone will be summoned by G‑d to ascend. (Ibid., vv. 12, 22, 24)

4 Sivan: The Jewish people are instructed to purify and sanctify themselves in preparation for the giving of the Torah, by suspending marital relations and immersing in a mikvah. (Ibid., v. 14)

5 Sivan:Moses builds an altar at the foot of the mountain and seals the covenant between G‑d and Israel. The entire people proclaim, “All that G‑d commands, we shall do and we shall hear (comprehend).” (Ibid. 24:4–8)

6 Sivan:The Giving of the Torah. “When morning came, there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain . . . The voice of the shofar sounded, growing stronger and stronger . . . G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai . . . and spoke the following words, saying: “I am the L‑rd your G‑d who took you out of the land of Egypt . . .” (Ibid. 19:16–20:2)

Mysterious Blank

The revelation at Sinai was the culmination and fulfillment of the Exodus. Many months earlier, also at Sinai, when G‑d first appeared to Moses in a burning bush and commanded him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, He had said: “This is your sign that I have sent you: when you take this nation out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).

From the moment that Moses brought them word of the promised redemption, the people of Israel eagerly awaited the revelation at Sinai. For Moses had promised them more than an escape from Egypt and their hard labor in mortar and bricks; he had promised them the ultimate freedom—freedom from their own mortality, freedom from the finiteness and mundanity of a material-bound existence. He had promised them a vision of the divine reality, and the empowerment to incorporate its boundlessness and eternity into their lives.

So from the day they left Egypt, the people of Israel literally counted the days to the morning on which they would gather to “serve G‑d on this mountain” and be granted the liberating truth of truths. To this very day, we reenact their 49-day count with our own “Counting of the Omer.”

In light of this, the events—or rather, the non-event—of the first of Sivan is most difficult to understand. According to the Talmud’s calculations, this was the day on which “Moses did not say anything at all to the Jewish people, since they were weary from the journey.” But human nature is such that the closer one comes to an anticipated point in time, the stronger one’s yearning and desire becomes. After six weeks of anticipation and preparation for the great day, would everything come to a halt merely because the Jewish people were weary from the journey? Is it possible that on the very day on which they arrived at Mount Sinai they did not do anything at all in preparation for their receiving of the Torah?

The Silencing of the Jewish Mind

But let us take a closer look at what the Torah tells us about the doings of the Jewish people on the first of Sivan:

In the third month of the Children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt, on that day, they arrived in the Sinai desert. They journeyed from Rephidim and came to the Sinai desert, and camped in the desert; and Israel camped there, before the mountain.

Exodus 19:1–2

In his commentary on these verses, Rashi notes the grammatically unconventional use of the singular vayichan (“and he camped,” rather than vayachanu, “and they camped”) in speaking of the entire Jewish people. Rashi explains that the Torah wishes to inform us that “they camped as a single man, with a single heart, unlike all other encampments, which were accompanied by dissent and dispute.”

Indeed, we find many instances of quarreling, and even rebellion, in the course of the Israel’s journeys in the desert. Still, was it really as bad as that? Were all other encampments (there were 42 of them altogether, as enumerated in the thirty-third chapter of Numbers) ridden with strife, and Sinai the only peaceful exception?

But the dissent and dispute which characterized the Jewish camp need not be understood only in the negative sense. Our sages tell us that G‑d created man in such a way that “just as no two are alike in their features, no two are alike in mind and character” (Talmud, Berachot 58a). Each individual’s distinct mindset and temperament leads him to apply the same truths in his own unique way. So differences of opinion do not necessarily stem from selfishness and animosity; they can also arise out of a sincere search for the truth and the desire to fully realize one’s potential as an individual. In fact, when not corrupted by self-interest, dissent and differences of opinion can prove positive and constructive.

Nevertheless, what was acceptable, even desirable, in the other 41 encampments was intolerable at the encampment at Sinai. For an important part of our preparation to receive the Torah was—and remains—the eradication of all differences in outlook and understanding.

The reason for this is best understood by examining the difference between pre- and post-Sinaitic study of Torah. Also before Sinai, the Torah was studied and observed by our ancestors: Shem, the son of Noah, together with his great-grandson Eber, headed an academy for Torah study at which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob studied; the three Patriarchs also established yeshivahs of their own. And all through the Egyptian exile, the tribe of Levi (who were not enslaved) occupied themselves with the study of Torah (see Talmud, Yoma 28b; Rashi on Genesis 26:5 and 46:28; Chizkuni on Exodus 5:4).

This means that at Sinai, contrary to what is perhaps a common perception, we were not granted a code of law or body of wisdom which had not been previously known. What did happen was that we were the recipients of a revelation that completely transformed the nature of our relationship with the Torah.

Prior to Sinai, the human intellect was the tool with which to access the Torah. The divine wisdom had been put into words and ideas comprehensible to the human mind, and the human mind labored to grasp and digest them—to the extent of which it was capable. Since every mind is unique in both its strengths and its weaknesses, the scope and depth of each student’s understanding differed. Obviously, no mind was capable of apprehending the entirety of Torah, as the infinite wisdom of G‑d could never be contained by the finite human mind.

But at Sinai, G‑d gave us His Torah. All of it. He chose to impart the whole of His wisdom to us, regardless of the limits of our intellect. At this moment, Moses and the most simple Jew were equal: equal in their inability to grasp the essence of G‑d’s wisdom with their own intellect, and equal in that G‑d had granted them this understanding as a gift—that He inserted the infinity of His wisdom into the simplest of Torah’s verses in the mouth of the simplest of Jews.1

To prepare for the divine giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people had to abnegate their individual intellects and faculties. They had to make the transition from active apprehension of Torah to passive reception of a gift from Above.

So the first of Sivan, the day on which the Jews arrived at Sinai, was far from an uneventful day. On the contrary, it was a day of intense preparation, involving an unprecedented activity: to establish a camp that was “as a single man with a single heart.” To not only reach a consensus on a unified course of action (“as a single man”), but that each should also surrender his or her individual approach, outlook and intuition to a singular egoless receptiveness (“a single heart”)—that is the most important prerequisite to the divine granting of the Torah.2

This was a most wearying journey. It was not the physical journey from Rephidim which so drained them,3 but the psychological and spiritual transition from six weeks of active preparation to utter passivity. On this day, Moses did not say anything at all to them, and his non-verbalization of the order of the day was its strongest articulation: to transcend one’s individual comprehension of Torah and make oneself an empty vessel to receive what G‑d would bestow.

Return to Self

Following the great non-event of the first of Sivan came five days of active preparation for Sinai.

Initially, the individuality of the human mind is an impediment to receiving the infinite essence of the divine wisdom. But after we open ourselves to receive G‑d’s Torah, we must reactivate our individual faculties in order to absorb and assimilate what we have received.

Once again, differences will emerge. Moses, Aaron, the priests and the common folk—each will have their boundaries clearly marked. For each must now take the very essence of Torah, which they all received equally, and apply it to his own life with the tools of his or her own cognition and experience.