The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: “Since it was upon this spot that Isaac was bound as an offering, it is fitting for his descendants to receive the Torah upon it.’”
At the foot of Mount Sinai, the entire Jewish People, only recently freed from slavery, meet their Creator, face to face. The mountain was engulfed in flame and the earth shook from the magnitude of the revelation of G-d’s omnipotence. The people heard and saw torches of fire, loud blasts of the shofar horn, hosts of angels, as they were temporarily elevated to unprecedented levels of prophetic vision.
It may be difficult for someone in later generations, thousands of years later, to picture such a scene and know how to relate to it. The Midrash comes to our aid. It asks: “Sinai - from where did it come?” The text carries on and explains: “From Moriah. As one separates challah from a dough, so was a section of Moriah torn off from the spot where Isaac our Father was bound to the altar to serve as an offering to G-d. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: “Since it was upon this spot that Isaac was bound as an offering, it is fitting for his descendants to receive the Torah upon it.’”
We might ask: What do the two events have in common? Why was it so appropriate that the scene of Isaac’s being offered to G-d also be the site where his descendents meet face to face with their Creator hundreds of years later, where they accept His Torah and His mission for them as a holy nation?
Let us first delve more deeply into what took place on Mount Moriah. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. G-d had informed him that it was Isaac, not Ishmael, who would be his spiritual heir. Only Isaac would carry on Abraham’s mission of serving G-d and teaching others that the Creator of the Universe was one, unique, and incorporate. He was not to be served through idol worship. “For in Isaac…“ Genesis 21:12
Consequently, Abraham knew that it was Isaac, and only Isaac, who would inherit the land that G-d had promised to him and to his seed after him.
Now, suddenly, he was commanded to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice:
What had happened in the interim? G-d had clearly designated Isaac as his heir, and Abraham had invested untold time and energy in grooming his son to carry on with the spiritual goals he had taken upon himself.
Why was G-d now telling him “…bring him up as an offering"? Didn’t Abraham deserve some sort of explanation of the apparent contradiction?
As we know, Abraham remained G-d’s loyal, unquestioning servant and took his only heir, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and prepared to offer him as a sacrifice to his Creator. He bound Isaac on the altar, and prepared to offer his life as G-d had commanded. At the last moment, he was told to stop, not to take Isaac’s life. Instead, he offered a ram that G-d brought to the scene for this very purpose.
It was only then that Abraham asked G-d why He had first promised that Isaac would be his heir, and then commanded him to sacrifice him as an offering. G-d explained to him that it was only a test to see whether he would be willing to give up to his Creator the dearest possession he had in his possession: his spiritual heir.
Abraham passed this test – the final of ten trials G-d set him in his lifetime. The spiritual conquest he achieved was not only his own gain; as the forefather of the Jewish nation, he imbued his future descendants with his own sterling loyalty to their Maker.
"Raise him up as an offering" G-d had commanded. “Place him on the altar; be prepared to sacrifice Isaac, but do not actually slaughter him, and do not cause him any bodily harm.”
When Abraham proved his full loyalty to G-d on Mount Moriah, G-d praised him: “Now I know that you are in awe of G-d.” (Genesis 22:12)
Until this juncture in time, Abraham had served his Creator out of love. At Mount Moriah, he demonstrated that he knew his place. He loved his Maker, and wished to draw near to Him, but at the same time, he was fully conscious of his own insignificance and helplessness before G-d. Along with his love for his Creator, there dwelt in his heart a profound awe of G-d's majesty, omnipotence, and omniscience.
In the Midrash quoted above, our Sages teach us that this lesson applies as well to the Giving of the Law at Sinai.
In discussing the giving of the Torah, the Midrash tells us:
G-d made the rounds of all the nations and tongues with His Torah, and none accepted it, until He came to Israel, and they accepted it. He approached (the descendants of) Esau, and asked: ‘Do you wish to accept the Torah?’
They asked: “What is written in it?”
He answered: “Thou shalt not murder.”
They said: “But look, we live by shedding blood, for thus were we blessed: ‘You shall live by your sword.’
He left them and turned to the sons of Ishmael.
They asked. What is written in it?”
He answered: “Thou shalt not steal.”
They said: ‘But we live by stealing, as it says: ‘And his hand is into everything, and the hand of everyone is upon him.”
And so it was with each nationality and tongue.
He came to Israel, and they did not ask anything; rather, they opened their mouths and declared: ‘All that G-d has spoken we shall do and we shall hearken.’
One might ask why it was that when He approached each nation, G-d chose to mention specifically that precept which He knew would be difficult for them to undertake, such as murder for the descendants of Esau, and theft for the Ishmaelites? It sounds as though G-d was looking for a way to convince them not to accept the Torah.
However, if we look more closely, we find another fundamental distinction between the response of the nations of the world and that of the Jewish People. Ishmael and Esau first asked: “What is written in it?”
Their decision to accept or reject the Torah was based not on the fact that it came from G-d, but on the merits of the text itself. They knew that the Torah was the word of G-d, but nonetheless felt themselves qualified to accept or reject it on the basis of its contents, not the merit of its Author.
This was their mistake. It is not fitting that man, who is only flesh and blood, the work of G-d’s Hand, decide whether or not it “suits” him to accept his Creator’s commandments. One who acknowledges that he was created by G-d knows his place and will accept His sovereignty without question. There is no room for discussion or negotiating whether or not to accept His Law. The People of Israel realized this, and unhesitatingly responded: “We shall do and we shall hearken!”
First of all, we accept: "We shall do" – that is, we shall perform Your commandments. That said and agreed upon, "and we shall hearken" – we wish to hearken to what is written in the Torah, that we may obey Your laws fully.
There were two aspects to the events at Sinai: The giving of the Torah, and the acceptance of the Torah.
The giving of the Torah was a process that originated Above, and proceeded downward from the Heavens toward mankind, those who dwell in the physical sphere of the earth, as the verse says: “And G-d descended on Mount Sinai.” This is one aspect of Sinai, when G-d bestowed the Torah and His commandments on the Jewish People.
The second aspect was the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, unquestioningly, with no conditions and no reserve. This reflects the opposite direction, from the earthly toward Heaven:
And they stood at the foot of the mountain… and they answered: all that Hashem has spoken, we shall do and we shall hearken.
This was absolute acceptance, with no conditions, without any questioning.
The revelation at Sinai was a one-time historical event, but remains impressed upon our hearts forever. The mountain itself was sanctified at the time. It was fenced off, and the people were warned not to try to draw any nearer than allowed. Afterward, however, it did not retain its sacred status. It was, and remains today, an ordinary mountain in the heart of the desert that bears its name.
Not so, Mount Moriah, the site of the Holy Sanctuary on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This land became holy for all time; here King Solomon built the Sanctuary, and here it was rebuilt when the exiles returned from Babylonia.
Later, it was again destroyed, but only temporarily. The sanctity of the site remains intact, and on it, the Third Sanctuary will rise when the Jewish People merit the ultimate redemption.
So, too, is the potential for sanctity permanently engraved in the heart of each and every Jew. Our forefathers spoke not only for themselves, but for all generations, when they proudly declared: “All that G-d has uttered, we shall do and we shall hearken!”