What really happened in that desert?
Now that we have had an introduction to Torah, it is time to find out what happened when the Jews were wandering in the Sinai Desert. It will also include a discussion about the Oral (Spoken) Torah.
King Solomon built the First Temple in 827BCE (that date is controversial). It stood for four hundred and ten years. Construction on the Second Temple began seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple. The Second Temple stood for four hundred and twenty years. Think about that for a moment. The Temples were the center of Jewish life for over eight hundred years!
Both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed five hundred years apart on the exact same day: the ninth of Av. I promise, I will not be throwing dates at you when I can avoid it: I remember too well how miserably I did on history exams that had a gazillion dates. But the ninth of Av is a date you should tuck away in your memory. It is an important date in the history of the Jewish people (more about this later).
While the First and Second Temples stood, all the commandments and teachings in the Torah were passed down verbally (Oral Torah) from teacher to student and from father to son.
Here comes a really pitiful truth. I learned about Moses and the Ten Commandments from Charlton Heston. I can still see him holding the stone tablets over his head with the wind whipping and the thunder crashing. Years later, I learned about the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps these were not the best places to learn about Judaism?
Most of us know that G-d gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. But did you also know that G-d gave Moses the entire text of the Torah (Five Books of Mosses)? Keep in mind as you read on many of the holidays we celebrate today are related to what happened in this particular time period over two thousand years ago. Those holidays in the Torah are Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Sabbath.
Let your imagination soar. The Jews have been freed from Egypt (Passover) and are traversing the Sinai desert. Three months into their journey they camp near Mt. Sinai. Moses climbs the mountain, and G-d speaks to him.
So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3)
Moses comes back down the mountain with G-d’s words in his heart. He calls the elders together and repeats G-d’s message. The elders vow to obey and to keep the covenant, without a clue as to what that promise entails.
Hearing their unconditional acceptance, G-d tells Moses to prepare the people for His presence. He warns that no man or beast should even approach Mt. Sinai for that is where He will appear. If they approach they will die. Clouds descend over the mountain, and thunder and lightning fill the sky. A Shofar (ram’s horn) is heard, and then there is absolute silence.
G-d speaks to the Jews, proclaiming His Ten Commandments. The people are terrified of the incomparable power of the Lord, and they beg Moses to become their intermediary. Moses knows that G-d has revealed Himself to the people so that they will fear Him and not sin.
Moses ascends Mt. Sinai for a second time. He remains for forty days and forty nights. In his long absence the Jews lose faith. They turn to Aaron, Moses’ older brother insisting that he make them an idol. He instructs them to bring all their gold and gold jewelry. The gold is melted, and Aaron fashions a golden calf (or small bull) to worship.
When Moses comes off the mountain and sees the people worshiping an idol he is furious. He berates Aaron and throws the tablets of the Ten Commandments to the ground breaking them. Moses burns the golden calf and has the gold ground into a powder. He then has all the people drink it so there is nothing left of their idol. They understand then that it was not a god.
G-d tells Moses that the Jews will die for their sin. After all, He had just appeared before the people, and the Second Commandment was very clear. It began: You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:3)
Moses beseeches G-d to forgive the Jews and give them another chance. He pleads: “You brought them out from Egypt. They are yours.” G-d relents but insists that the most brazen idolaters are to pay with their lives.
Moses asks for volunteers to carry out G-d’s wishes. The Levites, who did not participate in the idolatry, offer to carry out the killings in order to prove their total dedication to the one true G-d. Three thousand Israelites were slain.
I promised not to muddy the waters with controversial information. But I think we must be aware that archeological digs have uncovered thousands of small figurines with prominent breasts. These figurines were found in Israelite homes dating from four hundred years after the Jews received the Ten Commandments. It appears that these figures represented fertility. Was this idol worship, or was it simply the cultural norm? Were the Jews punished for disobeying G-d’s commandment to have no graven images? We take a look at this later in the chapter on punishment and reward.
Before ascending Mt. Sinai for a third time, Moses instructs the nation of Israel to mourn the death of their brethren and to repent for their sin of idolatry by fasting from sunrise until sunset every day until his return (Yom Kippur). Moses brings with him two hewed tablets so that G-d can again inscribe the Ten Commandments.
Moses spends another forty days and forty nights without food or sleep. It is said, he had become like an angel. During that time, G-d revealed the entire Torah to Moses, the six hundred and thirteen commandments along with the laws and the interpretations. The Torah was taught to Moses orally by G-d because the written Torah would have been incomprehensible without
G-d’s teachings. Moses comes off the mountain with new tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (holiday of Shavuot).
I visualize Moses sitting in his tent surrounded by the great Jewish minds of his time. He is teaching them the intricacies of the Torah. This day he speaks of the Sabbath, admonishing that it is G-d’s commandment that we keep and remember Shabbat. He quotes from the Torah that we must rest on the seventh day from work, and our servants and domesticated animals must rest as well. He reminds them that no fire can be kindled on the Sabbath.
I can hear the questions that must have followed: Tell us Moses, what constitutes rest? What are the rules about cooking? Must we dress a certain way? Are we allowed to write? What types of discussions can we have? I see them talking until darkness descends.
Moses answers each question as G-d had taught him. Speaking with great patience, smiling, already knowing that for thousands of years, the ever-resilient Jews will adapt to whatever rules are necessary to maintain the Sabbath and keep it holy.
How did the spoken Torah stay accurate as it was disseminated to millions of Jews?
I remember a game we played as children. We would sit in a circle, and someone would whisper something. The person would repeat what they had heard to the next person in the circle. On and on it would go. By the time the last person heard the message it had changed.
If we could not even keep a phrase from changing, how did the information remain so exact? If Moses received the entire Torah while on Mt. Sinai, wouldn’t that mean that G-d reveled when he would die? After all, the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, foretells Moses’ death and tells of our entering the land of Israel.
People of faith would say: G-d created the world. He freed us from bondage in Egypt. He parted the Reed Sea.
G-d can do anything.
You will read and hear various interpretations from rabbis and biblical scholars on much of what I have just shared with you. Many will say that the Torah was not written while the Jews were in the desert. Regardless of the discussions, there is one irrefutable fundamental belief that is the basis for all Judaism:
The Torah and the Ten Commandments came directly from G-d.