Har Sinai v Har Tziyon-the Paradox

This weekend we commemorate the most consequential event in human history, the revelation at Sinai. It behooves us to celebrate this gift from God. It’s, perhaps, even more important to try to fathom the significance of this phenomenon. However, that’s easier said than done, because that experience is sui generis. I’m going to try to get some insight into the magnitude of the epiphany by comparing it to a verse which seems to parallel the events of the Sixth of Sivan so many centuries ago. 

In our traditions and liturgy, we seem to equate our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai with a similar phenomenon in Yerushalayim. Of course, we say that Moshe received the Torah at Sinai (Pirkei Avot 1:1), and then ‘Moshe commanded us Torah as a legacy for the community of Ya’akov ‘(Devarim 33:4). On the other hand, when we open the ARON KODESH in our shuls, and prepare to remove the physical Torah scroll, we intone: For the Torah emerges from Tziyon, and the word of the Lord from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3).  

That announcement works just fine when the scroll itself is the product of the many scribes residing in the Holy City, but otherwise it’s a cryptic mystery. Does the Torah have more than one birthplace? 

The simplest approach to understand this conundrum is chronologically. Originally, the Torah came from Sinai, but over time the source of Torah shifted to Yerushalayim. This also fits in well with the famous verse: If there arises a matter too hard for you in judgment…then arise and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses (Devarim 18:8). As I discussed in last week’s article, we know that ‘place’ to be Yerushalayim or TZIYON. The epicenter from which Torah emerges shifted to Yerushalayim. 

A similar thing happened in my own lifetime. Growing up, Torah seemed to come from the GEDOLIM in New York. In 1986, over a two-month period, Reb Ya’akov Kaminetzky and Reb Moshe Feinstein passed away, and then Rav Soloveitchik retired. From then on, it seemed all conversations about GEDOLIM focused on Yerushalayim, or, at least, Eretz Yisrael. 

After a hiatus of about 1700 years, it became clear that KI M’TZIYON TETZE TORAH. During those intervening centuries it became common to talk about Torah emerging from other locations. The RIVASH wrote in the twelfth century: That from TZARFAT (France) emerges Torah; the word of God from ASHKENAZ (Germany). 

The Seforno conjectures that Sinai might have been the final word on Torah and Halacha, if it had not been for the Golden Calf. Now, we have to wait for the marvelous predictions at Sinai, like ‘you will be a nation of Priests (Shmot 19:6)’, for a much later time, and those great accomplishments will come from Tziyon. Sinai was eclipsed, because we proved unready. 

But it’s possible to conjecture that the difference between the Torah from Sinai and the Torah of TZIYON is practical or philosophic. The actual material may be different. For example, the straight statement of a law may come from Sinai, but the interpretation or application must be determined in TZIYON. The Rambam references this in his Laws of Sanctifying Months (1:8).  The Mitzva comes from Sinai, but: The calculations and the establishment of the months and the leap years is carried out only in Eretz Yisrael, ‘For out of Zion will emerge the law, and the word of God from Jerusalem.’  

Rav Yitzchak Blau quoted from the NETZIV (R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) that the phrase EISH DAT LAMO (‘a fiery law for them’, Devarim 33:2) means that there are two manifestations of Torah. The DAT is clear, established law; the EISH is dynamic, evolving rules which require creative analysis. It’s possible, conjectures the Netziv, that EISH laws can become DAT, standard Torah over time with consensus But, for us, the most important take away is the dual nature of the Torah Law, DAT is from Sinai, universally accepted, while EISH is from TZIYON, emerging and evolving. 

It’s a cool Chassidic observation that the letters of DAT LAMU can spell TALMUD. Moshe had all the information needed to know Talmudic law and the discussions of the MESORA, tradition. There are many Midrashic traditions that Moshe received all the Torah that would ever exist (Shmot Raba 47:1, Berachot 5b). 

One more point of view, Rav Yair Kahn on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website speculates that when Moshe taught Torah, he expected that everyone would try to comprehend God’s attributes and mold themselves after them. Rav Kahn then quotes Yirmiyahu, the prophet, as calling for the exact opposite. We should ‘roll up our sleeves, and perform TZEDAKA U’MISHPAT’, righteousness and justice. Yirmiyahu laments (wasn’t he always lamenting?): The guardians of the Torah did know not know Me (Yirmiyahu 2:8).’ Ethical behavior must precede Torah; DERECH ERETZ KADMA L’TORAH. 

Rav Kahn concludes: Ethical behavior without Torah is like a foundation without upper floors, but Torah without ethical behavior is like a palace without any foundation.    

Maybe the ethics and hard work paradigm is the Torah M’TZIYON. While the Torah principles first pattern represents Torah M’Sinai. Continuing this line of speculation, it’s entirely possible that the Torah first model may have worked if not for the Golden Calf incident. In any case, it’s possible to see the Torah as emerging from differing birthplaces. 

Personally, I think that it’s very instructive that when we carry the physical Torah scroll back to the ARON KODESH, except for Shabbat morning, we recite Psalm 24 about entering the gates of Yerushalayim. As if the true repository of Torah is the Temple Mount. We’re singing to God, our King about trying to scale the heights of God’s Holy Place (verse 3), and finding God’s blessing (verse 5).  

My favorite verse in that poem is: Thus is the generation who searches for Him; Ya’akov, who seeks Your Presence, SELAH! (verse 6). There is Torah M’SINAI and Torah M’TZIYON, but what’s most important is the eternal quest for God within that Torah. Chag Sameach, Good Hunting!! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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