Forty-nine days after the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews reach the Sinai Desert. The former slaves are exhausted and, especially, restless: They are going to finally meet God, the God of Israel.
The setting is dramatic. Moses watches over every detail. The tension mounts hour by hour. Exhortations are filled with grandeur, even mystery. At the foot of Mount Sinai—neither too high nor too wild a mountain—the people strain to collect themselves and their thoughts. Moses climbs up to receive the last instructions; he comes down carrying the divine words.
All goes well. At the resting place, men and women have never seemed so united. Vayikhan (He encamped) says the text (Exodus 19:2). In the singular. “As one man, one heart,” adds the medieval commentator Rashi. Not like before. Before, the people were exhausted, irritable from constant arguing and rivalry. Not now. It is as if they can sense the strange and terrible dimensions of the coming event. For the first time, God will address His people assembled below, before the fiery mountain. Until now, Moses has served as intermediary, interpreter. It is he who has made the divine will known to them. Moses alone was visible, his voice alone audible. He quotes the Lord: “You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians…Carried on the wings of eagles, you have come to me…If you follow my way, you will be a precious people…A nation of priests…” And all promised they would do everything God wished. They would be faithful to Him. And devoted. He has nothing to fear: They will not embarrass Him. They declared this message to their leader so that he will transmit it to the Lord.
Then Moses gives them precise, practical orders on how to prepare themselves physically and mentally, for the next 48 hours. They must wash themselves and their clothes. And make sure to stay pure, deserving of the unforgettable moment that they are going to live through.
In the evening, they sleep in their tents. To be fresh and alert the next day. At this point, the unexpected occurs: They sleep well. Too well. In order to wake them, God is compelled to use thunder and lightning; so the midrasha tells us. Otherwise, they would have missed their rendezvous with destiny.
But…how is this possible? How can they sleep while God and history are waiting for them? And why does tradition insist on telling us about this? One can easily answer the last question: We are told all this because it is true. Contrary to other religious histories, where those who came before are treated as irreproachable saints, glorified to excess, our tradition presents our ancestors as human beings. With their failings and their faults. They were neither gods nor heroes. They were living beings just like us.
That is the beauty of Scripture: its celebration of truth. No makeup, no subterfuge. Everything must be told. One doesn’t play with history.
The midrash goes further. Already awakened, breathless before the image of the mountain crowned by unreal smoke, the people seem to recover their speech. God wishes to entrust them with His Law, His Torah, but they refuse to accept it. Then, says the midrash, God lifts up the mountain and suspends it over their heads, saying: “If you accept my Law, you will live; if not, you will perish, you will be buried here under the mountain.” Frightened, the people shout: Na-aseh ve-nishma (We will do and later we will hear): We shall obey even before we learn the details.
Charitably, the midrash adds that God had offered the Torah to other nations. They refused it. But, in their defense, they pointed out that they didn’t have a Moses to govern and inspire them.
Nevertheless, the Hebrews are a class apart. No other nation has benefited from as many miraculous interventions. Didn’t they cross the Red Sea while their pursuers were drowning in the waves? In the desert, didn’t they receive special heavenly nourishment like no other? And Moses, didn’t he bring forth water from a rock? Still, they still were not content. Not grateful. They always found reason to grumble. Hardly liberated, they already wished to return to Egypt. Thirsty, they complained that the water they drank was bitter. A lucid but depressing commentary by the celebrated Hasidic rabbi Menahem-Mendel of Kotzk: It was not the water that was bitter, it was the Hebrews. The revelation at Sinai did not change them, did not even shake them up. Forty days later, they will offer their jewels to Aaron so that he can construct a golden calf. Ecstatic with joy, they will dance around the idol all night. This, too, is part of the truth.
However, the story does not stop there. Nor the memory. The Hebrews live today. Sinai does not represent the end, but the beginning of a great adventure.
Translated from French by Martha Liptzin Hauptman.
The Bible’s portrayal of the Chosen People preserves the good and the bad.