Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

July 21, 2007 – 6 Av 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 2:31 – 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 994; Hertz p. 746)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

With this parashah we begin the last of the books of the Torah. Moses undertakes to give guidance to the Israelites in a series of speeches during their fortieth year in the desert. He reviews several key events that occurred during the desert wanderings:

  1. the establishment of a judicial system.
  2. the sending of scouts to check out the Promised Land.
  3. the people’s complaints, upon hearing and believing the majority’s negative report.
  4. the barring of a generation from entering the Promised Land.
  5. the bold, but unsuccessful, attempt to enter the Promised Land despite this decree.

God directs Moses and the Israelites to refrain from attacking the peoples of Ammon, Moav, and Edom. Taking a detour, the Israelites ask to pass through the territory of the Amorites of Heshbon. Sihon, king of Heshbon, responds by attacking them. The Israelites conquer Sihon and his kingdom, with God’s help. God also helps them to conquer the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan. The choice pasturelands thus conquered, which lie on the eastern side of the Jordan River, were pre-assigned to Israelite tribes on condition that they defer settling them until after they had helped their brethren to conquer the Promised Land itself (i.e. the western side of the Jordan).

Moses charges Joshua, who already had been designated as his successor, not to fear the remaining nations in the Promised Land, because God will be with him.

Topic #1: Which Mountain is Mount Sinai?

In the opening verses of Deuteronomy, Moses shares some geographic information that seems designed to help us to picture the time and (especially) the place where his remarks were delivered. Although each of the place names has a familiar ring to it, there is no question we are somewhat frustrated because the format of the Torah scroll did not lend itself to transmitting a map (from the days of Moses) as an appendix. However, we are aware that map-making was, at best, in its infancy in that distant time and place.

There is a consensus among scholars about where some of the venues to which Moses refers actually were. This is no small feat, because clues are obscured with each military conquest and with each major event in seismology or meteorology. An illuminating summary by Jeffrey H. Tigay may be found in the Deuteronomy volume of the JPS Torah Commentary (Excursus 1: The Historical Geography of Deuteronomy).

For the past century, more and more people have been wondering which mountain is Mount Sinai (or, in the language of Deuteronomy, Horev). Curiosity intensified in the years following the Six-Day War, when the Sinai peninsula became accessible to Jews coming in through Israel for the first time in a generation. While we might like to think we can review the details with certainty, the fact is that we do not know – most likely we cannot know – exactly which route the Israelites took when they left Egypt. Therefore, we also cannot say with reasonable certainty which mountain is Mount Sinai.

Lack of certainty has not prevented people from claiming to know the location of Mount Sinai. The residents of the Santa Katherina monastery are proud that they live at Mount Sinai (or so they are convinced). Local Arabs cite a tradition that Jabal Musa (which means Mount Moses) is the place. And scholars continue to propound their own theories. Though theories abound, no one knows for sure.

Why do we care where Mount Sinai is? Ideally, we would like to be able to visualize the revelation that was pivotal to our religion in its early development. The better we can picture the surroundings of that revelation, the closer we might feel to our Israelite ancestors – and of course to God. But since we cannot locate Mount Sinai, let us look over a few of the possibilities listed in Professor Tigay’s summary.

  1. Some scholars believe that the route of the exodus brought the Israelites to the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, making Mount Musa a leading candidate, “although there is no evidence that it was so identified any earlier than the fourth century C.E.”
  2. Those scholars who think that the exodus route led across the center of the peninsula have their own suggestions about which mountain was Sinai; so do those scholars who envision a northerly exodus route.

Further theories, in Tigay’s words:

  1. Some deny that Mount Sinai is in the Sinai Peninsula and locate it instead in the Negev, or even as far as Midian in northern Arabia. The exact location of the mountain may already have been forgotten in biblical times; apart from Elijah’s mysterious journey there (I Kings 19), the Bible offers no indication that it was ever visited. The name Horeb … indicating dryness, is too vague to offer any guidance.

By now it should be clear that we might never learn exactly where Mount Sinai was. Because we are stuck with this reality, we might find it more productive to try to gain some insight into the significance of the various possible locations.

  1. Most of us have never contemplated the possibility that Mount Sinai might not be located within the Sinai peninsula. How would a location in Midian add another layer of connection to the biography of Moses? (Hint: in the book of Exodus, see 2:16-21, 3:1-5, and especially 3:12. However, 18:27 mitigates against this theory.)
  2. If Mount Sinai might be in the Negev, should that affect the behavior of those who tour in the mountainous sections of the Negev? What about those who live there?
  3. For those of us who live at least 6,000 miles away from Mount Sinai – whatever its precise location might be – why does an incident that has been reported to us from 33 centuries ago continue to exercise an influence in our lives? Would knowing with certainty impact our belief?

Topic #2: Rivals and Relatives

In chapters 2 and 3, the Israelites are given guidance about how to deal with the various peoples who were in their path to the Promised Land. God restricts the Israelites from attacking the Moabites and the Ammonites, who were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, as well as the Edomites, descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. They were given no such restrictions about the Amorites and the residents of the Bashan, who were promptly and successfully dislodged by the Israelites.

Why were the Israelites required to be so scrupulous in dealing with their by-then-distant relatives, while they could attack non-relatives without restrictions?

Is there a lesson for us today in this requirement? If our relationships with relatives is less than ideal, do we have an obligation to correct them? Is there a statute of limitations for holding onto sour memories?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016