As the Torah resumes the narrative of Har Sinai toward the end of Parashat Mishpatim, Rashi (Shemot 24:1 s.v. VeEl) quotes a puzzling Gemara in Mesechet Shabbat (88a; see also Mechilta) that seems to throw off the chronological sequence of the Matan Torah story. Contrary to the understanding of several Parshanim, among them Ramban and Ibn Ezra, the Gemara maintains that the events of Perek 24 occur in fact before the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot, which are related in Parashat Yitro (20:1-14). Granted, we have a concept of Ein Mukdam UMe’uchar BaTorah — the Torah is not necessarily written in chronological order (Pesachim 6b et al.) — but, nonetheless, this Gemara demands to be understood. Why would the Torah discuss such a seminal event in our history in such a confusing fashion?
Before an answer can be presented, we need to understand the nature of each of the two separated Har Sinai narratives. The first, in Parashat Yitro, involves Hashem’s revelation, consisting of the Aseret HaDibrot and characterized by metaphysical phenomena and intense awe of God. This experience is one-sided; Hashem, in His infinite kindness, delivers the Aseret HaDibrot to Bnei Yisrael, who receive them passively. In fact, the previously mentioned Gemara in Shabbat (88a) famously states that Bnei Yisrael had no choice in accepting the Torah at this stage, as Hashem forced them to do so. The second part of the story, however, in Parashat Mishpatim, deals with a covenant made between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael, known to us as Kabalat HaTorah. Not only do Bnei Yisrael enthusiastically accept the Torah here (Shemot 24:3; 24:7), but also Moshe conducts an entire sacrificial Avodah to formally seal the Berit which Bnei Yisrael will enter with Hashem. This part of Matan Torah, of course, is a two-way street. Here, we as a people make a choice to become Hashem’s Am Segulah and live by His Torah, thereby entering an everlasting Berit with Him.
Back to our question: Why, according to the Gemara and Rashi, would the Torah record Kabalat HaTorah after the Aseret HaDibrot narrative, if Kabalat HaTorah happened first? Rav Yair Kahn, Ra”M at Yeshivat Har Etzion, answers that the Torah does so in order to create an obvious distinction between the two halves of the Har Sinai story. Both Hashem’s revelation and our Kabalat HaTorah are paradigms in our service of God: sometimes we must passively submit to His will, and sometimes we must be active participants, whether by doing Mitzvot or creating our own Chidushei Torah. Had there had been no separation between the passive reception of Matan Torah and the active acceptance of Kabalat HaTorah, we may have had a difficult time distinguishing between them, and, in turn, we may have had a difficult time finding a Derech in Avodat Hashem. Thus, the Torah disregards chronological order here. It is more important that we understand the Har Sinai story properly so we can glean the appropriate lessons from it in order to serve God in the best way possible.
Still, why couldn’t the active Kabalat Torah come first in the Torah? Shouldn’t chronological order be maintained as much as possible? Rav Kahn suggests that Matan Torah is of primary importance in the narrative, and therefore takes precedence. After all, it is Hashem’s direct revelation, and thus is one of the foundations of our Emunah in Hashem and His Torah. Furthermore, only after experiencing closeness to Hashem can we sincerely commit to maintaining a connection with Him. As we navigate the difficulties of commitments in Avodat Hashem, let us take the lessons of Kabalat HaTorah with us as we approach the celebration of Purim and “Kiyemu VeKibelu” — reaccepting the Torah with love.