The two most important events that form our national character are the redemption from Mitzrayim and the giving of the Torah. These two monumental events shape who we are as Jewish people, and yet, we are only called upon to commemorate one of them.
Yetzi’at Mitzrayim is commemorated in several different ways. For one thing, it has its own holiday - Pesach. Pesach is a time when we sit at the Seder and recall in an elaborate fashion the redemption from Mitzrayim. The Seder itself has its own series of Mitzvot, namely, Matzah, Maror, and the Korban Pesach, all of which serve to commemorate the redemption.
In addition to Pesach there are other Mitzvot which commemorate Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. The Mitzvot of Bikurim (first fruits), Tefilin, and Shabbat all have elements of remembering Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.
As if that were not enough, at the Seder we repeat the Midrash in which Ben Zoma expounds from the Pesukim that we should remember the redemption from Mitzrayim every day and every night by reciting the third paragraph of Shema both in the morning and in the evening.
Simply put, Jewish life is filled with different types of commemorations for the redemption from Mitzrayim. Whether it is holidays, Mitzvot, or the daily Shema, everywhere we turn lays another commemoration of that historical event.
With all the special treatment given to Yetzi’at Mitzrayim we might fairly expect similar treatment for Matan Torah. However, we find nothing. Not one measly Mitzvah, not one exclusive holiday, no daily repetition of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the Torah doesn’t even record the date upon which this monumental event took place. Toward the beginning of Parashat Yitro the Torah tells us that “in the third month from their departure from Mitzrayim the Jewish people came to the wilderness of Sinai ‘BaYom HaZeh,’” “on this day” (Shemot 19:1). However, the Torah does not tell us which day “this day” is. Additionally, there is no consensus among the Rabbis as to on which day we received the Torah. There is a dispute recorded in the Talmud about whether it took place on the sixth or the seventh of the third month, Sivan. Furthermore, the connection between Shavu’ot and Matan Torah made by Chazal is not mentioned in the Torah itself. Perhaps most significantly, there is not one Mitzvah in the Torah associated with the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
For what reason is the redemption from Mitzrayim enshrined in our consciousness with an array of Mitzvot that permeate our everyday lives and highlighted by the holiday of Pesach, while the giving of the Torah lacks a similar – in fact, any – set of commemorations?
In this case the question is the answer. There are no commemorations of Matan Torah for a reason. The implicit message behind this fact is that the giving of the Torah is not a historical event like the redemption from Mitzrayim. The giving of the Torah is not part of our past history, but, rather, an event that occurs daily. Every Jewish person in every generation must feel as if he or she has been given the Torah by Hashem and entered into its covenant. To celebrate an anniversary of the giving of the Torah would be to relegate it to a moment in history, something in our past. In reality, the giving of the Torah must be lived out by each person now, in the present. To institute rituals or Mitzvot to commemorate the giving of the Torah would compromise the timelessness of the event. This is reflected in a second Midrash of Ben Zoma: He notes that the Pesukim in the Torah from the beginning of Parashat Yitro don’t say that they came to Sinai in the third month “on that day,” in the past tense, but, rather, “on this day,” in the present tense. From this we learn that each day we involve ourselves in Torah is as if we receive the Torah “on this day.” The very same Ben Zoma who taught us to mention the redemption from Mitzrayim every night is now teaching us that the Jewish people arrived at Sinai to receive the Torah not “on that day” but today, “on this day.” The experience at Sinai must not be remembered – it must be perpetuated.
It is all well and good to know we must perpetuate the giving of the Torah, but if there is no ritual, no Mitzvah associated with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, how do we perpetuate the experience of receiving the Torah?
The answer lies in this week’s Torah reading. When the giving of the Torah at Sinai was over, it was sustained in the construction of the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary for the presence of Hashem. Over the past few weeks we have been reading the dry, detailed plans for the construction of the Mishkan. According to some, including Ramban, the Mishkan is an extension of the experience at Sinai – a microcosm of that event. Just as Hashem came down on Sinai in a cloud and consuming fire to give the Torah, He will continue to come to the people in a cloud that settles on the Mishkan and a consuming fire that burns on its altar.
If the Mishkan is the perpetuation of Matan Torah, how do we, who have no such sanctuary, perpetuate the experience at Sinai? The answer to this question lies in the many details of the construction of the Mishkan which we read each year. Even if we don’t have the Mishkan itself we still have its message. The blueprints of the Mishkan stand as a metaphor for adherence to the Torah, for what it means to be a Jewish person who follows the Torah.
The message found in the thorough building description of the Mishkan is that the details are so important. What may seem like little things to us are of critical importance in the service of Hashem when taken together. Like the detailed instructions of the Mishkan which must be followed exactly, the many Mitzvot we have and the many rules that dictate how they are to be performed are all critical because they enable us to demonstrate to Hashem how committed we are. By paying attention even to the slightest detail of the smallest Mitzvah, we indicate how much we care about Hashem and our lives and how dedicated we are to Him and following His Torah.
Our relationship to Hashem is often compared to the relationship between a husband and a wife. Just as every detail can be so important to a spouse, so too our adherence to the many detailed laws of the Torah means so much to Hashem. Hashem doesn’t want candy and flowers, and He doesn’t want dinner and a movie. He just wants us to recognize His presence every day (just like a spouse) and to be acknowledged for creating this world which we benefit from at literally every moment. He wants to be appreciated for the innumerable myriad of times he does favors for us. The message of the detailed blueprints of the Mishkan is that Hashem appreciates the details and performing them shows how much we care.
There is a Midrash that looks for the most important, most all-encompassing Pasuk in the Torah. What Pasuk sums up what it means to be a Jewish person? The Midrash concludes, “Et HaKeves Echad Ta’aseh VaBoker VeEit HaKeves HaSheini Ta’aseh Bein HaArbayim,” “The one lamb you shall make in the morning and the second lamb you shall make in the afternoon” (BeMidbar 28:4). This refers to the Korban Tamid that was brought every morning and evening. Why is this Pasuk considered the most all-encompassing Pasuk in the Torah?
The answer is simple. This Pasuk is about regular, daily, and consistent service of Hashem. It is about paying enough attention to details to be consistently focused on observing the Torah. This means more than anything to Hashem, far more than any expression of “I love you.” This Pasuk is what it means to be a Jewish person – to live the detailed life of the Torah.