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Where is the Torah?

Only a few months after Hashem rescued them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. The mountain is enveloped in smoke as it begins to tremble, signaling the presence of God in the place where the Israelites will receive the Torah and become God’s holy nation– as long as they hold fast to his commandments.

This is the moment we joyfully recall on Shavuot. The holiday acts both as a culmination of the weeks following the liberation of Pesach and also as a beginning in and of itself of our relationship to God’s Torah. Shavuot links us backward to the exodus from Egypt and forward to the centuries of passion and inquiry that define the relationship of the Jewish people to the Torah. 

The moment of Sinai is also an intermediate space between Egypt, the site of our pain and bondage, and the Land of Israel, a place flowing with milk and honey where God will look over us and, again contingent on following God’s laws, allow us to thrive. If Sinai is the stopgap between these two poles of ancient Jewish life‒‒slavery and freedom, oppression and independence‒‒what exactly is the nature of Sinai as a place? Why would God choose this specific location for the glorious moment of giving the Torah to Bnei Yisrael? 

A set of midrashim asks two important questions about the spatial nature of Sinai and why God might have chosen it, over other candidates, as the location of the giving of the Torah.

What makes Sinai special?

The first midrash is from Mechilta deRashbi, a collection of halachic midrashim on the Book of Exodus from the Mishnaic period, and deals with the nature of Sinai itself. 

“ויחנו במדבר”

–בדמסיון שלעולם מגיד שבדמסיון שלעולם ניתנה להם תורה לישראל. שאלו נתנה בארץ ישראל היו בני ארץ ישראל אומרין שלנו היא ואלו ניתנה במקום אחר היו בני אותו מקום אומרין שלנו היא לפיכך ניתנה להם בדמסיון שלעולם כל הרוצה ליטול יבוא ויטול.

“And encamped in the wilderness”–In the dimasyon of the world, to tell that in the dimasyon of the world was the Torah given to Israel. For had [the Torah] been given in the Land of Israel, the people of the Land of Israel would have said: “It is ours!” And if it had been given in a different place, the people of that place would have said: “It is ours!” Therefore, the Torah was given in the most dimasyon of the world, so that forever, whoever wants to come and take it should come and take it. 

According to this midrash, God gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai because it is a dimasyon. This is a Greek word, understood in the Rabbinic lexicon as referring to a public, ownerless piece of land. What is essential about Sinai is that it is a no man’s land. It can be claimed by all, and, at the same time, by no one. By focusing on this aspect of Sinai, the rabbis seem concerned about how the Torah could’ve been mistreated.

Before the Israelites arrive at Sinai, and after they leave, its wilderness is uninhabited. If the Torah had been given in a place where some Israelites lived, those Israelites and their descendants would have the impression that the Torah belonged primarily to them. According to our midrash, this is the situation Hashem could not stomach. Therefore, the wilderness of Sinai was chosen in order that no community claim Sinai, and with it the Torah, as their home and inheritance to the exclusion of others.

Why not the Land of Israel?

A similar midrash, also from Mechilta deRashbi, reflects on why Sinai was chosen, over other potential locales, for the revelation of the Torah. This midrash asks the more pointed question of why the Torah wasn’t given in the Land of Israel. It seems only natural, according to the presupposition the midrash poses, for the Torah to have been given on the piece of land that the Israelites are about to enter and inherit.

The midrash provides two possible answers for why the Torah was not given in the Land of Israel. First, it would have allowed other nations of the world to avoid the shame and punishment that came with their having rejected the Torah. They could have claimed that since the Torah was given in the land associated with the Israelites, and not in their respective lands, they didn’t think the Torah could have belonged to them.

The second answer mirrors our first midrash. It states that had the Torah been given in the Land of Israel, the tribe on whose land it was given would have been able to brag to the other tribes that their tribal plot was chosen. Therefore, the Torah had to be given in an ownerless place.

Our midrash ends by comparing the Torah itself to the wilderness in which the Israelites received it:

בשלשה דברים נמשלה תורה במדבר באש ובמים לומר לך מה אלו חנם אף דברי תורה חנם לכל באי עולם.

To three things is the Torah compared: to a wilderness, to fire, and to water. This tells you that just as these [three things] are free, so too the words of Torah are free to the entire world. 

According to this midrash, Torah should resemble a natural phenomenon, one that is endless and ownerless. Just as there should be no cost to drink water or harness fire to cook food, there should be no barrier to access the wells of Torah. 

These comparisons help us understand what would’ve become of the Torah had it been given, as these midrashim decry, in a plot of land with a clear owner. If the Torah should be like fire or water, its access unlimited and its power boundless, there cannot be a human owner who can erect a fence around it and prevent the multitudes from coming to taste its sweetness. 

The Torah is not meant to be locked away in one place: it was and is supposed to be transnational. God could have decided to give us the Torah anywhere, but chose to do so in the ownerless wilderness of Sinai, allowing all to seek its glory and no one to restrict its access or use it as a cudgel to assert national or tribal superiority. As we prepare to celebrate Shavuot, it is important to remember those dangers, and that which Sinai represents: free, unbridled access to the grand wilderness of Torah. 

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