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Repetition of the Mt. Sinai Event

The study and knowledge of history is a worthwhile endeavor. This is particularly true when the historical event revolves around a momentous, life changing event. The discovery of a revolutionary scientific theory or a technical and practical application of that idea changes everything we thought about how something works or how we live. We can trace the repercussions of the Industrial Revolution, the invention of disease killing medicines like the smallpox vaccine, or the rise of Communism through society. There are many of us old enough to remember the beginning of space travel. We can accurately study the progress since then that has been made in the fields of communications and technology. The collapse of the Roman Empire or the creation of the modern State of Israel are other historical events that changed or impacted society on a grand scale.

This week’s Torah portion, V’Etchanan includes the repetition of the most significant event in human history, God giving His law to the entire nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. Here Moshe not only repeats the “Aseret Hadibrot,” the 10 Statements, but he gives a vivid description of the event as it happened 40 years before. We can understand Moshe repeating to the nation the “Aseret Hadibrot,” the 10 most fundamental principles of Judaism and ethical morality. This, Moshe’s last discourse, is taking place just before the nation is to cross the Jordan and establish their own nation. But why is the description of the original event necessary for him to repeat as well?

Knowledge of history is part of the category of knowledge known as second hand knowledge. It comprises the overwhelming majority of the knowledge we possess. It consists of any knowledge a person claims to have for which he or she did not directly participate in or experience. When a person learns and comprehends principles of geometry from his teacher, the student has direct, first- hand knowledge of how geometry works. However, when a person studies events of the past, we say he also has knowledge. He knows that WWI took place, as did the American Revolutionary War. He is not in doubt about the veracity of those events and he incorporates them into his body of knowledge. Yet how is that possible when he has no direct experience with them?

In V’Etchanan, Moshe outlines the fundamental principles for knowing whether we can accept a claim as authentic history. Moshe was concerned. How would the next generation know that the revelation on Mt Sinai took place? Many of the first-hand witnesses of the event were now dead. Those that remained are charged not only to never forget what their own eyes saw, first-hand knowledge, but they were commanded to pass it on to their children and grandchildren. (Devorim 4:9-10) This transference constitutes second-hand knowledge. In order for this transference, the knowledge of Mt. Sinai, to be known to all future generations, Moshe had to include here as well, in his repetition of the event, the essential elements for knowing the veracity of an event in history.

One essential element to establish the veracity of an event is to know that it occurred to or was witnessed by multitudes of people. In Devorim 4:10 Moshe mentions “The day that you stood before Hashem your God in Horeb, when Hashem said to me, ‘Gather all the nation and I will cause them to hear My words…’” This factor removes the possibility for conspiracy. It is not a reasonable assumption to say that millions of people got together the other night to agree that if anyone asks, “Who was the 2nd president of the US, say it was John Adams.” If this fact was not true, it would have been contested at the moment it was first introduced to the American people.

The second essential element necessary to establish the veracity of an historical account is to check if the information being relayed is in line with the intellectual level of the transmitter. If a young child, 4 or 5 years old, comes and tells us it is raining outside and we cannot see, we can accept his report because the phenomena of rain is within his mental capacity. But if this same child tells us about the weather patterns and systems causing the rain, we would reasonably be suspect about accepting his explanation. Now read Devorim 4:11-12. “… and the mountain was burning with fire up to the heart of heaven, darkness, cloud, thick cloud… you were hearing the sound of words…”The description of the event of Mt Sinai is completely in line with every person’s natural physical senses.

We now understand that when Moshe repeated to the people the account of God’s giving of the Aseret Hadibrot at Mt Sinai, an event that occurred forty years before, why he included the description of the event as well. This event is a once in humanity experience but it is one we must all know with the same conviction as someone who had first-hand knowledge of the event. The implications stemming from the veracity of this event are the most important for all people for all time.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. On it we always read this parsha and the retelling of this event. Let us use the knowledge of the veracity of Mt. Sinai and the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av to recommit ourselves to a life of study and living Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan