My rebbe lied to me. I don’t know if he was merely passing along what he’d been told or if he made a deliberate choice not to share truths that might shatter our young minds. (That’s the reason they taught us the orbital model of the atom, right? Or were our science books just really out of date?)
If you received a traditional Jewish education, you were probably taught the same thing: the Israelites leave Egypt on the 15th of the first month (NIssan), and they spend the next seven weeks learning that in the desert, the food is terrible, but the portions are small. (Luckily, this had no lasting ill effects on the Jewish psyche.) Then, on the fiftieth day, the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), they receive the Torah. This is why we still count 49 days after Passover nowadays and celebrate the fiftieth day as Shavuot.
Yeah, not so much. Consider this verse from the end of this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 24:16):
And the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
As the Talmud (Yoma 4b) explains:
Rabbi Akiva concurs with the view of Rabbi Jose, that the Torah was given to Israel on the seventh of the month.
Now, there is a dissenting view that the Torah was given on the sixth (Talmud, Shabbat 86b-88a), but we follow the first view (with its halakhic implications). Ah, you might say, forget the date, the important thing is the day, the fiftieth day after the Exodus. Well, according to that same passage, there’s no argument that the Torah was given on Saturday, or that the Exodus took place on a Thursday. So according to everyone, the Torah was given on Day 51. (Of course, if we want to eschew the Midrashic path and just look at the textual evidence, it seems that it wasn’t the sixth or seventh day of Sivan that God spoke to the the people, but rather the third, cf. Exodus 19:11-16.) Are we commemorating the wrong day?
This problem has been noted by various commentators, including the Torah Temima (on the cited verse) and Magen Avraham (OH 494), but it’s not the only one that arises as we consider what Sinai was. We say that the Torah was given there, but what does that mean? Was Moses truly surprised by all of the bad (or good) things that happened over the next forty years, as detailed in the Torah that he had already received? Perhaps it’s only the commandments that Moses received? But so many of those commandments are linked to events that occur later!
OK, let’s just stick to the Ten Commandments. That’s pretty cut-and-dried, right? They even have a fancy name, the Decalogue. We can unequivocally say that those Ten Commandments were given by God to Israel in the first week of Sivan, after seven weeks of wandering, and you can read them verbatim in Ex. 20:2-13. Well, actually there’s a different version in Deut. 5. And the first time we mention the Decalogue, it’s ten very different commandments in Exodus 34.
Very well. Whatever those Ten Commandments were, God gave them to Israel at Sinai directly, and ever since–wait, I mean God was going to give them directly, but the people panicked (Ex. 20:14-17) and asked Moses to transmit the message. Or they heard the first two, and then they had Moses transmit the rest. One of those three, anyway.
Fine, it was God or Moses or both of them who spoke to the people of Israel, 600,000 men strong, and gave them–I mean, “about six hundred thousand” (Ex. 12:37). And after the war with Amalek, and the Golden Calf plague, and the killing of “about three thousand” directly by Moses and the Levites (ibid. 32:28), there were left… 603,550 (38:26)–the exact same number to be counted the next year, after the construction of the Tabernacle, even though the 22,000 (or 22,300) Levites were excluded (Num. 1:46). Even though 600,000 able-bodied men was a level achieved by the modern state of Israel only in 1967.
Is Sinai historical? No, nor is it supposed to be, as the Torah is not meant to be a history book. But does it belong to the realm of myth, metaphor or mnemohistory? No; at least, I don’t believe so. Sinai is not history; Sinai is a happening. It is an integral part of the Jewish people, as is evidenced by the Bible itself and all that comes after it. Sinai is continually referenced in Scripture, as are the Patriarchs and the Exodus. There are miracles intertwined in those events, but they take place in a world recognizable to us, unlike Eden, the Deluge and the Tower of Babel. Recognizing Sinai as a real event, an occurrence, a happening is essential to our Jewish identity. The details have been and will continue to be debated for a long time. But that doesn’t change or challenge our identity as souls who stood at Sinai.