May 26, 2024
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Historically Inaccurate?

Shimmy Gabbay, a beloved congregant at Teaneck’s Congregation Shaarei Orah, came to be puzzled about Devarim 5:3-4. Moshe Rabbeinu—in these pesukim—tells us that Hashem did not appear at Har Sinai to our fathers, but to us.

Shimmy was shocked that Moshe Rabbeinu uttered something entirely inaccurate! Moshe Rabbeinu addressed the new generation about to enter Eretz Yisrael 40 years after we left Mitzrayim. Most of his listeners were not present at Ma’amad Har Sinai. In reality, it was the parents of Moshe Rabbeinu’s audience who heard Hashem’s voice at Sinai. How could Moshe Rabbeinu utter such blatant imprecisions?!

 

Rashi, Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni

A strong consensus of the major commentaries (Rashi, Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni) agrees that the first half of pasuk 3 is expressed in shorthand (see Rashi to Bereishit 39:14 for one of many examples where the Torah speaks in shorthand). He is saying that not only did Hashem make a brit at Sinai with the prior generation, but the current one as well. In other words, the brit is as relevant to the younger generation entering Eretz Yisrael, as to their parents who left Mitzrayim.

 

Ibn Ezra

The second half of the pasuk is interpreted in two different manners. Ibn Ezra explains that Moshe Rabbeinu means that some of those present during Moshe Rabbeinu’s speech were at Har Sinai. Males younger than 20 and females (see Rashi to Bemidbar 26:64) did not die as a punishment for the cheit hameraglim.

Ibn Ezra understands Moshe Rabbeinu to be authenticating the Sinai event, saying that it is still in “living memory.” A problem with this interpretation is that its relevance is limited to the generation that Moshe Rabbeinu addressed. It is axiomatic that the Torah must always be relevant (Megillah 14a).

 

Chizkuni

The Chizkuni thinks that Moshe Rabbeinu is addressing those who were not present at Sinai. Moshe Rabbeinu tells these people that the brit at Sinai is as relevant to them, as it was to their ancestors.

In other words, Devarim 5:3 is communicating perspective and attitude, not historical facts. Of course, the new generation did not hear Hashem’s voice at Har Sinai. However, they—and every new Jewish generation—must view the events as if they happened to them. They should think that it was not to our ancestors, but to us.

 

Becoming Part of the Past

This idea is a central aspect of the Jewish emotional experience and mindset. At the Seder, we are not merely telling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Instead, we are reliving this momentous occurrence and making every effort to feel like we left Mitzrayim. We relive the midbar episode on Sukkot and re-experience Matan Torah on Shavuot. We must not regard these events as if they happened to our ancestors, but rather to us. We must psychologically identify as one with our ancestors and their experiences. We must make it our experience.

 

Not a Luxury

This attitude is essential to Jewish survival. It is not a luxury; for without it, the Jewish message becomes diluted with each generation. For each generation to continue to burn brightly as shining Jews, we must feel like we were the first generation to receive the Torah.

 

The Mitzri, Sheini and Shelishi

The halachot communicate this lesson regarding a Mitzri and Edomi rishon, sheini and shelishi (“a first, second and third generation Egyptian or Edomite convert,” Devarim, 23:8-9). The first and second-generation Egyptian or Edomite convert cannot marry most Jews. However, after three generations, they may marry all Jews.

The idea is for the Egyptian and Edomite cultural influences to recede post-conversion. The first dor retains much of its pre-conversion impact from their former culture, and some of it is passed onto the next generation. By the third dor, the influence has presumably waned completely.

These halachot mirrors the immigrant’s experience in a new country. The first generation retains major cultural influence from the old country, passed down somewhat to the next generation. The next generation, for example, is a native speaker of the new country’s language but still can speak a bit of the old country’s tongue. However, the third generation, typically, cannot speak the old country’s language and has lost almost all of the former land’s cultural impact.

Sadly, we have witnessed the same general cultural deterioration in the Jewish community in North America. The first wave of European immigrants spoke Yiddish and retained much Jewish culture, even if not fully observant. The second generation spoke some Yiddish, would not marry out of the religion, but became quite acculturated in the new land and shed most of the Jewish culture. Finally, the next generation was even further assimilated and felt comfortable marrying a non-Jew (thus, accounting for the extraordinarily high intermarriage rate outside the Orthodox community).

The only way to fight these powerful sociological forces pushing toward integration and assimilation is to retain the first-generation experience. Each generation must feel they received the Torah at Sinai. Otherwise, Sinai’s impact wanes more and more as each generation passes until it, God forbid, eviscerates. We fight this trend by viewing ourselves as the first generation.

 

Conclusion: We Accepted the Torah

Moshe Rabbeinu in sefer Devarim sets forth masterful plans to retain our Jewish identity, as we transitioned from the midbar to Eretz Yisrael. As immigrants to a new country, he feared the new generations would see themselves as “new Jews” who broke connections with the Jewish Torah past (as did many secular Zionists in the 20th century).

We must embrace this idea and express it in our language. A Jew should never say, “Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim.” No, he should say, “We left Mitzrayim! We accepted the Torah at Sinai! We were in the midbar for 40 years.”

May we merit a proper Torah perspective on our past, and may we successfully transmit these correct attitudes to the next generations.


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. His 16 books, including a brand new one on sefer Devarim, are available on Amazon.

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