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Chronology in the Torah: Understanding our timeline

Eitan Cooper
| 10/05/2022

The text of the Torah occasionally seems out of order. This week Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, highlights such a discrepancy in Parashat Behar, where Moses receives the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Using texts from the Ramban and Benjamin Sommer, Cooper poses a question worthy of serious reflection in our generation.

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Most of Leviticus contains commandments concerning sacrifice, the rituals pertaining to Priests (Cohanim), and to individual sanctity. As per the first verse of Leviticus all of it is taught to Moshe from inside the Ohel Moed or Mishkan – not from Mt. Sinai. Then, without warning, Parashat Behar starts with the verse “And God spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, saying…”, (Ex 25:1) placing Moshe back on Mt. Sinai – at the locus of revelation found in Exodus Chapters 19-23.  Just as curious, the content of Behar – the explanation of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in Ancient Israel, followed by a long series of blessings and curses, seems to belong more to Deuteronomy than to either Exodus or Leviticus.

Commentators tried to explain it. Ibn Ezra took the view that the Torah is not chronological: “Ein Mukdam U’meuchar B’Torah”. According to him, Moshe received the laws at Mt. Sinai but “saved” the Sabbatical/Jubilee for later in order to address issues of Sanctity of the Land raised in Leviticus. Rashi addressed the contextual issue by asking “What does the Sabbatical year have to do with God speaking with Moshe on Mt. Sinai?”  Why are the agricultural Sabbatical and Jubilee commanded here, but not in Deuteronomy? His answer: it is to clarify for us that ALL Mitzvot were given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, not on the plains of Moab, where Moshe expounds the Law to the new generation entering the land.

Ramban was not fully satisfied with the above explanations. He attributed the lack of consistency in the text to there being two sets of laws given to Moshe before and after he destroyed the 1st set of Tablets.  The first covenant between the God and the Israelites took place in chapters 19-31 of Exodus – the first time Moshe goes up Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights, but after the Golden Calf and the breaking of the tablets, Moshe ascended again for another 40 days and nights and came down with new Tablets – and a second Covenant was established – with a similar, yet slightly DIFFERENT set of laws a new Torah were given.

This ingenious device would explain the differences between the Sabbatical in Exodus 23 and in Leviticus 25. In Exodus 23, the landowner is commanded leave the land to the poor (evion) and the beast of the field for the Sabbatical year. In Leviticus 25, the fallow land is for the benefit of owner, the owner’s household and to the stranger in the owner’s gates, in equal measure. Both beautiful messages, but offering very different ways for implementing the Sabbatical.

This device solves other textual problems in the Torah. For example, there are two similar, yet slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments. In the Exodus version Shabbat commemorates Creation and in the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy Shabbat commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Through this device of “two covenants at Mt. Sinai”, Ramban preserves what Benjamin Sommer calls “the stenographic” model of Revelation in which Moshe received the entire Torah and wrote it down.

Modern critical scholarship is based, according to Sommer, on a “participatory” model of Revelation found in the theologies of Rosensweig, Heschel as well as some Hassidic masters. According to the participatory model, what we can actually know about revelation at Mt. Sinai is minimal, and the so-called written Torah contains a diversity of views of great teachers recorded in different periods of ancient Israel. An unnamed teacher compiled these views of revelation into one book, and rather than using the names of these sages, attributed their diverse perspectives to one great teacher, Moses, giving Torah greater authority.

The discovery of a multiplicity of voices in Torah, rather than just one, endows it with its unique theological power and ethical clarity, and at the same time provides the model for understanding ALL subsequent Torah scholarship, which consists of discussion and dispute across generations. If we can accept this as “Torat Emet”, can we teach our children to live with the lack of unity concerning the source? It is a question worthy of serious reflection in our generation!

Shavua Tov From Schechter!

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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