Here is a question I would like to ask: “When Hashem gave us the Torah, was there food and drink on Har Sinai or not?”
In last week’s Torah portion (Yitro), we read about Matan Torah, receiving the Ten Commandments. At the end of this week’s parsha (Shemot 24), the verses detail the prelude to that momentous event.
Moshe wrote the first portion of the Torah (from Bereishit until Matan Torah) and awoke early to build an altar at the foot of the mountain, together with twelve stone monuments, one for each tribe. Moshe instructed the firstborn (this was before the role was transferred to the Kohanim) to sacrifice Burnt Offerings (olot) and Peace Offerings (shelamim). Moshe then put half the blood in special containers (aganot) and sprinkled the other half of the blood on the altar.
Rashi says that an angel assisted Moshe in dividing the blood exactly in half – it had to be precise. Moshe then read aloud to Am Yisrael the first part of the Torah he had written, and they responded, “Na’aseh ve’nishma – we will do and then we will hear,” in other words, they accepted the Torah before even hearing what it entailed. Moshe then sprinkled the second half of the blood on Am Yisrael as a sign of their covenant with Hashem.
Following that, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and the Seventy Elders ascended the mountain, where “they saw G-d.” The verses and the commentaries explain exactly who “they” were and what it was they saw. Despite seeing something they were not supposed to, Hashem did not immediately punish them, and “they” ate and drank. Then Hashem tells Moshe alone to ascend to receive the luchot, the Tablets, and Moshe ascends, accompanied by his servant Yehoshua.
Moshe instructs the Elders to stay behind in the camp together with Aharon and Hur until he returns. Yehoshua does not return with them but waits lower on the mountain for his master to return. Moshe then ascends the mountain alone, where he remains for forty days and forty nights.
The Torah here does not say anything about what Moshe ate or drank during those forty days and nights. To learn that, we need to skip forward to parshat Eikev (Devarim 9:9), where it says that during that time Moshe did not eat bread, nor did he drink water.
Although Matan Torah was a profoundly spiritual event, reading between the lines we see numerous references to food and drink (or the lack thereof), and the question is, why? Why is it necessary to mention food at all? Why not simply concentrate on the spiritual aspect and omit the food completely?
The answer is that the two are intricately connected.
The type of food Am Yisrael ate in preparation for Matan Torah was planned with precision. They first ate matzos, bread that is devoid of the yetzer hara (chametz), and then Hashem gave them mann – the food Adam HaRishon ate in Gan Eden – to cure all their physical ailments and disabilities and further raise their spiritual level. Had this not been the pre-Matan Torah “menu,” Am Yisrael would not have attained the physical and spiritual level of perfection necessary for witnessing Hashem’s presence on Har Sinai.
Before receiving the Torah, sacrifices had to be offered, including a korban toda (thanksgiving offering), which is in the category of shelamim (peace offerings). Am Yisrael were obligated to bring a korban toda since they matched all four requirements (stipulated in the Gemara, Brachot 54b): someone who crosses the sea, journeys in the desert, is cured of illness, or is freed from imprisonment. Matzos are included in the korban toda.
Nadav and Avihu and the Seventy Elders ate these matzos before they ascended Har Sinai. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, Acharei Mot) refers to them as “kilor/uggot,” not cakes in the sense we imagine but “uggot matzot,” i.e., matzos. The korban toda has a time limit within which it must be eaten, and according to the Ramban (Shemot 24:11), Nadav and Avihu and the Elders ate the food of the korban toda before they ascended the mountain, near the altar, firstly because they did not want to exceed the time limit and secondly because they wanted to receive the Torah with simcha. From this we learn that it is required to have a siyum (feast) when finishing studying parts of the Torah (for example, a tractate of Gemara).
Interpreting this differently, Rashi maintains that the eating and drinking were a “negative” thing, indicating how much lower they were compared to Moshe in that they “observed” Hashem after eating material/earthly food. One of Rabbeinu Bachye’s interpretations follows this vein – that they were not of the required spiritual level to directly observe Hashem, and for this they were later punished. Hashem did not want to punish them immediately and spoil the joy of the occasion.
The Kli Yakar finds Rashi’s “negative” approach difficult and tries to reconcile it by saying that the “eating and drinking” of Nadav and Avihu and the Elders were figurative and that they referred to the spiritual “sustenance” of observing the Shechina – which is equivalent to eating and drinking.
Unlike the discrepancy in the commentaries regarding Nadav, Avihu and the Seventy Elders, there is consensus regarding Moshe’s not eating nor drinking for forty days and forty nights, which was obviously miraculous as a human cannot survive for that time without water. The Zohar (Beshalach) describes in detail Moshe’s sojourn in Heaven during that period, exactly which angels he met on the way, how he managed to overcome the various obstacles they placed in his path to prevent him from receiving the Torah. It is clear that during this time Moshe was equivalent to an angel, who neither eats nor drinks.
Our Sages teach from this that although we live in this world and are required to eat and drink and rejoice in the Torah, the only way to truly achieve the greatest heights in Torah study is to minimize our worldly affairs, including food and drink. As it says in Pirkei Avot (6:4), “This is the way of the Torah – eat bread with salt [simple, not fancy food], drink water in small amounts, sleep on the ground, live a life of hardship, toil in the Torah, and if you do, happy are you in this world and in the next.”
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Where in the parsha does Hashem promise to protect us from pandemics like Covid?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: What did Yitro “hear”? What miracle, of all the miracles, was the clincher that caused him to believe in Hashem? Rashi, citing the Gemara (Sota 11a), says that it was the attribute of “Middah Keneged Middah” (just retribution) with which Hashem punished the Egyptians in the Red Sea, each one according to their misdeeds. Some sank like lead, some were tossed about, etc.