How can the idea that Moshe received the Entire Torah at Sinai?

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How can the idea that Moshe received the entire Torah at Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus be reconciled with the fact that the Torah describes events that took place forty years later? Thank you.

Dear Michael,

You ask an excellent question. This is a fascinating subject that has been addressed by the greatest commentaries of all times. Many verses refer to the Torah as “The Torah of Moshe”, yet none of them describe when Moshe actually wrote the Torah (see Deut. 33:4; Joshua 8:31; 2 Kings 14:6; Malachi 3:22; Nechemiah 8:1; 1 Chronicles 34:14).

The basic answer to your question is that when we say that Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he received all the historical accounts and events that had not yet occurred. Nor does it mean that he actually wrote what he received while on the mountain.

Regarding the first point, when the Jewish people encamped at the base of Mount Sinai they heard the first two of the Ten Commandments from G-d Himself. The experience was so spiritually electrifying and intense that they told Moshe that they couldn’t bear hearing more. Rather, he should hear the rest and then teach it to them himself.

Moshe then rose to the top of the Mount, ascending to an even higher spiritual plane. There he communed with G-d for forty days with no food, drink or sleep. Sustained by soul food alone, his body was elevated above the physical world. Like a glowing, red-hot piece of metal, his body appeared more energy than matter; or like an intensely bright lantern, his inner illumination masked all but a wisp of his physical frame.

In this state G-d reveled to him all the teachings and laws of the entire Torah, including the deepest mystical secrets. While this may have included some insights into future events, the main experience was that of becoming consumed within G-d’s Divine Will. After forty days Moshe came down from the heights of Sinai with knowledge of the entire Torah which he then commenced teaching to Joshua, the Elders and the entire people. These oral teachings consisted of the beliefs, morals and laws of the Torah.

Regarding the second point, the Sages differ as to when Moshe in fact wrote what became the first Torah scroll that included the teachings he received at Sinai, together with the events that took place in the desert: “Rabbi Yochanan said, The Torah was given scroll by scroll. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, The Torah was given sealed” (Gittin 60a).

What this means is that according to both opinions, the Torah was actually written after Sinai as dictated from G-d to Moshe. However, according to Rabbi Yochanan, it was written section by section as events unfolded, when and in the manner G-d dictated to Moshe. Whereas according to Reish Lakish, G-d dictated the Torah to Moshe at one time, at the end of the forty years in the desert.

Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, summarizes the viewpoints as follows. According to Rabbi Yochanan, when Moshe descended from Mt.Sinai he wrote from the beginning of the Torah until the end of the passages about the Mishkan, i.e. the books of Genesis and Exodus. He then wrote the rest of the Torah at the end of the forty years. According to Reish Lakish the entire Torah was written at that later time.

Both opinions account for how the Torah describes events that occurred after Sinai. However there is one exception: The concluding verses of the Torah describing the death of Moshe, his burial and the people’s mourning. If Moshe wrote these verses, he was alive not dead. If he had died, who wrote them? The Talmud explores this very question:

“‘So Moshe, the servant of G-d, died there’ (Deut. 34:5). Rabbi Yehuda queried, Is it possible that Moshe was alive and wrote, “So Moshe died”? Rather, until this point Moshe wrote, from here on Joshua wrote. Rabbi Shimon said to him, Is it possible that the first Torah scroll was missing even one word? Behold its says “Take this Torah scroll and place it along side the Ark of the Covenant” [implying that it was completed] (Deut. 31:26). Rather, until here G-d dictated and Moshe wrote, from here on G-d dictated and Moshe wrote in tears” (Menachot 30a).

One explanation of this exchange is as follows: Rabbi Yehuda understood that the words of the Torah as transmitted by G-d to Moshe were so powerful and true that if Moshe wrote “So Moshe died”, he would have died on the spot. Therefore the account of his death and the ensuing events that conclude the Torah were dictated by G-d to Joshua.

Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, is of the opinion that it is inconceivable that Moshe did not write the entire Torah, as verses seem to indicate. Rather, until this point Moshe wrote with ink; from the point G-d revealed his pending death, he dipped his quill into his falling tears and stenciled in the concluding words of the Torah. Joshua filled in the empty words stenciled by Moshe, thereby filling the void that ensued from his death and realizing his dream to wed the Jewish people to G-d through the Torah.

May we merit fulfilling our unrealized potential and to live our lives as outlined by our teacher Moses in the Torah of Moshe!

By Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman