Abarbanel on Shavuot
On the Giving of the Torah
The Parsha we call “Yitro” describes the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the culmination of the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. Abarbanel poses two simple but important questions: Why didn’t G-d give the Torah much sooner in history, to Adam or Noach or at least to one of the Patriarchs. Secondly, why did G-d choose to give the Torah at that particular location? Why not give it when the people were in Egypt, or in the Land of Israel, perhaps on the very spot where the Temple would be built?
In regard to the first question, Abarbanel offers three perspectives. First of all, the Torah had to be given to a large congregation of people that constituted an entire nation. Even though Adam and Noach observed the universally applicable Noachide laws and the Patriarchs observed the commandments of the Torah prophetically even before they were given, they did so only as individuals with a personal intellectual and prophetic connection to the will of G-d. Also, according to Kabbalistic thought the 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 present at Sinai constituted all the different character types in the totality of Mankind. In effect, the Torah, although it was only directly given to one distinct nation, was actually transmitted to all of Mankind.
Secondly, the monumental task of receiving and transmitting the vast scope of the Torah and ensuring that it would be accepted by the nation could only be achieved through Moshe. Although the Jewish nation produced hundreds of prophets, Moshe stood alone, unique in the history of Mankind. That uniqueness can be characterized as follows: 1.) Maturity at an early age and physical strength undiminished by age. 2.) Total control over his physical desires. 3.) The wisdom to understand almost completely the nature of G-d’s total creation. 4.) A spiritual make-up that allowed him to receive prophecy at any moment, unlike any other prophet. 5.) Since he had led the nation out of Egypt and fought battles and performed miracles on their behalf, it was fitting that only he should be the one to transmit the Torah. 6.) He combined all the positive characteristics of the Jewish People into one individual: royalty, priesthood, scholarship, material and spiritual accomplishment. 7.) Most importantly, the nature of his prophecy was unlike any other. He received his prophecies when fully conscious. They were never shrouded in metaphors, images visions or dreams. His prophecies came clearly and directly from G-d. This is what is meant by the fact that he spoke with G-d ‘face to face.’
Thirdly, in order to emphasize the fundamental difference between Torah Judaism and all other religious beliefs and philosophies, the giving of the Torah had to be a clearly miraculous Divine intervention. It was the culmination of the Exodus, from the plagues to the splitting of the sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army, to the miraculous manna from heaven, to the victory over Amalek, and finally to the thunder, lightning, smoke and fire that surrounded the mountain.
In regard to the second question, the Torah was given specifically at Mount Sinai for the following reasons: 1.) Since it required Divine intervention, the Torah had to be given in a desert setting where the nation could only be sustained miraculously. It also had to be given soon after the Exodus so that those miracles would be fresh in their minds. 2.) Mount Sinai possessed a unique measure of spiritual sanctity. It was there that Moshe first encountered G-d in the burning bush. 3.) They could not receive the Torah in Israel since they would be overwhelmed by the physical necessities of conquering and developing the Land. At the same time, they could not receive it in Egypt as they were still affected by the spiritual contamination of the immoral and idolatrous Egyptian society. They required a cleansing experience of a period of travel which brought them to Mount Sinai. 4.) Finally, the Torah had to be given in a desolate wilderness that was not claimed by any other nation. This symbolizes the availability of the Torah to all peoples. If the Torah had been given in Israel, the nations of the world could claim that since the Torah was given only in the territory of the Jewish People, they had no connection to it, were not bound by the dictates intended to apply to all of Mankind, and were not welcome to accept it in total, even voluntarily. Additionally, disputes could arise among the Jews themselves, each tribe claiming that the Torah was given in its portion of the land.
Therefore the Torah had to be given publicly and dramatically, in a place owned by no one and thus owned by everyone, to a prophet and a nation uniquely prepared to receive the message which would enlighten all of Mankind.