It is a well-known fact that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. This fact is axiomatic and indisputable. Unless, that is, one reads what it actually says in the Torah.

The Torah describes how Am Yisrael first arrive in the Sinai Desert [Shemot 19:2]: “They camped in the desert and Israel camped there opposite the mountain.” The assumption is that “the mountain” in question is Mount Sinai. In the next verse, we are told [Shemot 19:3] “Moshe ascended to Hashem and Hashem called to him from the mountain.” From which mountain? It is not until the third time that Mount Sinai is mentioned that it is explicitly mentioned by name [Shemot 19:11]: “On the third day Hashem will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai”. It is fair to assume that Mount Sinai is the very same mountain that Moshe has been climbing over the past few days and not some other mountain a few miles down the road. After the revelation that “the mountain” and “Mount Sinai” are one and the same, the Torah reverts back to calling Mount Sinai simply “the mountain”. And then we are hit with some major-league ambiguity [Shemot 19:17-18]: “Moshe brought the people out… and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. Mount Sinai smoked because Hashem had descended upon it in fire…” Was “the mountain”, at which Am Yisrael stood at its foot, the same as Mount Sinai – the smoking mountain? I’d like to say yes, but the Torah is making this difficult[1].

In order to proceed we must go back to the first time Mount Sinai is mentioned in the Torah: Moshe has fled from Egypt and is tending the flock of his father-in-law, Yitro. One of his sheep runs away [Shemot 3:1] “and he came to the Mountain of E-lokim, to Horev.” Hashem appears to Moshe in a burning bush and the rest is history. The “Mountain of E-lokim” is identified with Mount Sinai a few verses later when Hashem tells Moshe [Shemot 3:12] “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain[2]”. The Rashbam notes that as the Torah specifically says that Israel encamped “opposite the mountain” and not “opposite a mountain”, it must be that the Torah is referring to some previously mentioned or well-known mountain[3], which, in turn, must be Mount Sinai, better known as the “Mountain of E-lokim”.

We’ve just seen that the “Mountain of E-lokim” was a well-known mountain long before Hashem appeared on it to give Am Yisrael the Torah. It turns out that the “Mountain of E-lokim” was a well-known mountain long before Hashem appeared on it to appoint Moshe as His emissary to extricate Am Yisrael from Egypt. Recall that at the episode of the burning bush the Torah tells us that [Shemot 3:1] “Moshe was pasturing the flocks of Yitro… and he came to the Mountain of E-lokim.” According to the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, the verse should be understood as “Moshe would always pasture[4] the flocks near the Mountain of E-lokim”. There was something about Mount Sinai that attracted Moshe. Rav J.B. Soloveichik writes that “whenever he came into the desert he would leave the sheep in charge of his assistants and go to the Mountain of E-lokim… to pray for his people”. The question is: how did Moshe know that there was something special about this particular mountain?

A way ahead can be found in a later episode, when Am Yisrael thirst for water and Moshe is told to go to a specific boulder and to hit it with his staff[5]. Hashem tells Moshe [Shemot 17:6] “Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horev”. Note that Hashem is referring to “the rock (ha’tzur)” and not some generic rock, meaning that this was a well-known rock. The word “Horev” clearly indicates that this rock was located in the vicinity of Mount Sinai, but where? The precise location is disclosed a few chapters later. After the sin of the golden calf (egel), Moshe asks Hashem to reveal His Divine Countenance. Hashem agrees, but in order to ensure Moshe’s personal safety, Moshe will have to remain sheltered for the entire duration. Hashem tells Moshe [Shemot 33:21-22] “There is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock. It shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock…” Many of the medieval commentators comment that “a place with Me” means “on Mount Sinai”. Again, the Torah mentions not “a rock”, but “the rock”. The Seforno ties everything together by directing our attention to the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [54a] that teaches that the cleft in the rock was created on the sixth day of creation at dusk, just as Hashem was shutting things down. This was also the rock that Moshe hit in order to give Am Yisrael to drink and this was the rock upon which Hashem first revealed Himself to Moshe. The conclusion is inescapable: the rock – Mount Sinai – had been known and recognized as a holy place since the creation of the world.

And then something changed. Mount Sinai somehow lost all of its inherent holiness. While we do not know its precise geographic coordinates, if we were to one day positively identify the mountain it would be permissible to climb to the top and to take selfies. Hawkers would congregate at base-camp, selling replicas of the two tablets, humorous T-shirts[6], and ice cream, all at outrageous prices. Compare this with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Today, two thousand years after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, certain parts of the Temple Mount are still completely off limits due to their exceptional holiness while even the “less holy” parts can be entered only after a ritual bath. How could Mount Sinai – a place that was sanctified at the dawn of time –lose every last vestige of its sanctity?

Before Hashem gives the Torah at Sinai, He warns Moshe to keep the people away from the mountain and that anyone who comes near the mountain will surely die. Only after the Divine Revelation is over and after a shofar has been sounded can people safely approach the mountain. The Talmud in Tractate Taanit [21b] learns from this that “It is not the place of a person that honors him; rather, the person honors his place, as we found with regard to Mount Sinai, that as long as the Divine Presence rested upon it, the Torah said [Shemot 19:3]: “Neither let the flocks nor the herds feed before that mountain”. Once the Divine Presence departed from the mountain, the Torah said [Shemot 19:13]: “When the shofar sounds long they shall come up to the mountain”. This indicates that the sanctity was not inherent to the place but was due to the Divine Presence resting there.” Before the creation of the universe Mount Sinai had been already designated as the place upon which Hashem would one day give His Torah to mortal man. As the entire universe was created just for that moment, the mountain was imbued with immense holiness. But once the mountain’s mission had been completed, its holiness was exhausted and it became just another rock. The messenger was not important – only the message was.

This can help us understand something enigmatic that Hashem tells Moshe at the burning bush. Moshe tells Hashem that he is not up to the task and that Hashem should find someone else to serve as His messenger. Hashem answers Moshe [Shemot 3:12] “For I will be with you and this is your sign that it was I Who sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship Hashem on this mountain”. Why should Hashem’s sign make Moshe feel any more secure? Perhaps what Hashem was telling Moshe was that the message is more important than the messenger. “You think you are unworthy? You are as worthy as the mountain upon which you stand. Its identity as a holy place, as “the rock”, exists only because one day it will used to relay My message. It will bear My message and so it takes on My holiness. If you bear My message then you will also take on My holiness.” And if we bear His message, then we will also take on His holiness …


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] The Torah should have written “they stood at the bottom of the mountain. The mountain smoked…”

[2] See the commentary of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch on Shemot [19:3] where he shows that by “worshipping Hashem” Hashem meant “learn Torah”.

[3] In Hebrew this is called “heh ha’yedi’a”.

[4] The verb is conjugated as “haya ro’eh” and not the simple “ra’a”.

[5] This boulder eventually became known as the “Well of Miriam”.

[6] “I climbed Mount Sinai and all I got was this stupid T-shirt”