Betrothal, Betrayal and The Birth of a Nation


We’re told that three million men, women and children were gathered at the base of the mountain, which towered above them. Thick black clouds hovered overhead, like a chupah, a wedding canopy. They had washed their clothes and went to the mikvah, but husbands and wives had been separated for three days. They were as pure as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It was the sixth day of the month of Sivan.

Having been given the Divine instructions on the way to live, they responded, “Na’aseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will learn”), the Covenant of Sinai. Thunder and flames shot out of the sky, while a shofar blast reverberated around them. The excitement was palpable. A group of what had been disparate individuals were now becoming “like one person with one heart.” Only seven weeks before, they were slaves. Now they were about to become the Chosen People, a new nation.

Every person was given two crowns on his or her head, one for the pledge of “na’aseh,” one for “nishma.” The betrothal was concluded. Now they belonged exclusively to the God who had freed them from the Egyptian bondage.

Moses was the “mesader kiddushin,” conducting this ceremony, the intermediary between the people and the Deity. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace, the Israelites did not know much about Moses, at first, and doubted his claim that he was appointed by God to lead them out of their miserable state. But he performed miracle after miracle, splitting the sea as Pharaoh and his army were bearing down on them. As they crossed the sea on dry land they witnessed the mighty Egyptians drowning behind them. All of these events gained their confidence in Moses, but at the same time they were totally reliant on his physical presence. The feeling of insecurity after 210 years “in a land not their own,” as had been foretold to their forefather Abraham, still gripped them.

Moses had gone back up Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets that were inscribed with the words heard at the betrothal ceremony. He promised to return soon. But when he did not reappear at the time they anticipated, the former slaves became alarmed, overwhelmed by their insecurities. They approached Aaron and demanded that he make for them a god they could see and touch, not the invisible Deity. The gold they collected from their Egyptian neighbors was gathered and thrown into a fire. A Golden Calf emerged which they now imagined had godly powers. The newly betrothed people abandoned their Beloved and threw off all the constraints that He imposed on them. They acted in a wanton manner, acts of depravity witnessed through their years of slavery. The crowns on their heads were removed together with their state of purity, because of their betrayal.

At this time Moses returned carrying the Two Tablets, hewn and engraved by God. He saw the people feasting and dancing around the Golden Calf. Furious, Moses threw the Tablets to the ground, shattering them. He took the Golden Calf, melted it in the fire, and then ground it into fine dust that he sprinkled into water. He forced some of the people to drink from the water, as an act that would later become the ordeal of the Sotah, the wife suspected of infidelity. Three thousand people, those most responsible for the idolatry, died. The people were chastened.

God was prepared to annihilate them all, but Moses, their leader and father figure, prayed for them and asked for mercy, which was granted. This all took place on the seventeenth and eighteenth days of Tammuz.

Moses went up again on the mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and received the second set of Tablets. He remained there for another 40 days. He came back down for the final time carrying the Tablets on the tenth of Tishrei. So much had happened in that four-month period. A betrothal, a betrayal, a reconciliation and marriage. The nation of Israel came into being, a nation that would forever leave its imprint on all humanity. These momentous months would henceforth be commemorated with Shavuot in Sivan, the fast of Tammuz, Elul’s beginning of the period of introspection, and finally the glorious Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when Israel as a nation embraced their God and sealed the eternal covenant with Him.

Now 3,400 years later, the nation of Israel is back in its own land, and the Covenant of Sinai still exists and is thriving. May it so continue until the end of days. 

Fred Ehrman is a retired investment adviser and security analyst. He has held leadership positions in several Jewish organizations. He is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 6:42 p.m.

Torah: Exodus 30:11-34:35;
Numbers 19:1-22

Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

Havdalah: 7:43 p.m.