The following shiur provides an overall introduction to this topic, which will serve as the basis for our study of the remainder of Sefer Shmot.
Structure and Theme in Chumash
When we study Chumash, we encounter two types of parshiot:
The basic reason for this is quite simple. Sefer Breishit explained why and how God chose Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of His special nation. Sefer Shmot began by describing how God fulfilled His covenant with the Avot, and redeemed His nation from slavery in Egypt. Now, before this nation enters the Promised Land where they are to live as God's nation, they must first receive the set of laws [i.e. Matan Torah] which will make them become that special nation, and enable them to fulfill their divine goal.
Assuming that Bnei Yisrael are to receive all of the mitzvot at Har Sinai before they continue on their journey, we would expect to find the 'logical' order portrayed in Board #1.
However, instead of this clear and structured order, we find a much more complicated presentation. Instead of presenting all of the mitzvot together, only the first ten commandments are given at Ma'amad Har Sinai (in Parshat Yitro). Then, after a short narrative, additional mitzvot are recorded in Parshat Mishpatim. At the end of Parshat Mishpatim, we find yet another short narrative, followed by seven chapters that detail the mitzvah to build the Mishkan (in Trumah/Tezaveh). This lengthy set of mitzvot is followed by yet another narrative which describes "chet ha'egel" (32:1-34:10), which is then followed by yet another set of mitzvot (see 34:11-26), etc. Likewise, this pattern of a 'blend' of mitzvot and narrative continues in both Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamdibar.
So why does the Torah present its mitzvot in this complex manner. Would it not have made more sense to present all of the mitzvot together in one organized unit (like "Shulchan Aruch")?
The answer to this question is the basis for our approach to studying Chumash. The intricate manner in which the Torah presents the mitzvot 'begs' us to pay attention not only to the mitzvot themselves, but also to the manner of their presentation. Therefore, as we study, we assume that there should be thematic significance to the order and sequence in which the Torah presents the mitzvot.
Hence, the first step in our study will usually be very objective, for we must first determine the nature of the progression of a certain set of "parshiot." Stage two is usually a bit more subjective, for once we uncover the structure of those parshiot, we can then discuss its thematic significance.
In summary, we posit that to enhance our appreciation of Chumash, we must study not only the mitzvot, but also the manner of their presentation. This requires that we consistently pay attention to the 'structure' of the 'parshiot' in Chumash, as well as to their content.
Chronology in Chumash
This introduction leads us directly into one of the most intriguing aspects of Torah study - the chronological progression of "parshiot" [better know as the sugya of "ein mukdam u'm'uchar..."]. As we study Chumash, should we assume that it progresses according to the chronological order in which the events took place, or should we assume that thematic considerations may allow the Torah to place certain parshiot together, even though each 'parshia' may have been given at different times.
In this respect, we must first differentiate once again between 'narrative' and 'mitzvot.'
Now, it is only logical to assume that the ongoing narrative of Chumash follows chronological order, (i.e. the order in which the events took place, e.g. the story of Yitzchak will obviously follow the story of his father Avraham). Nonetheless, we may even find instances when a certain narrative concludes with details that took place many years later.
For example, the story of the manna in Parshat B'shalach concludes with God's commandment to Moshe to place a sample of the manna next to the Aron in the Mishkan (see Shmot 16:33-34). This commandment could only have been given after the Mishkan was completed, an event that does not occur until many months later. Nevertheless, because that narrative deals with the manna (which first fell before Matan Torah), a related event, even though it takes place at a later date, it can be included in the same 'parshia.'
The story of Yehuda and Tamar in Sefer Breishit is another classic example. See perek 38; note from 38:11-12 that since Tamar waited for Sheyla to grow up, the second part of that story must have taken place at least thirteen years later, and hence after Yosef becomes viceroy in Egypt! Recall that he was sold at age 17 and solved Pharaoh's dream at age 30.
What about the 'mitzvot' in Chumash? In what order are they presented? Do they follow the chronological order by which they were first given?
Because the mitzvot are embedded within the narrative of Chumash and are not presented in one unbroken unit (as explained above), the answer is not so simple. On this specific issue, popularly known as "ein mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah" (there is no chronological order in the Torah), a major controversy exists among the various commentators.
Rashi, together with many other commentators (and numerous Midrashim), consistently holds that "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," while Ramban, amongst others, consistently argues that "yaish mukdam u'm'uchar," i.e. Chumash does follow chronological order.
However, Rashi's opinion, "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," should not be understood as some 'wildcard' answer that allows one to totally disregard the order in which Chumash is written. Rashi holds that the mitzvot in Chumash are organized by topic, i.e. thematically, and not necessarily in the actual chronological order in which God gave them to Moshe Rabbeinu. Therefore, whenever 'thematically convenient,' we find that Rashi will freely 'move' parshiot around.
For example, Rashi holds that because of the thematic similarities between the Mishkan and the story of "chet ha'egel," that the mitzvah to build the Mishkan (recorded in Parshat Trumah - 25:1-9) was first given only after the sin of the Golden Calf (32:1) which is only recorded later in Parshat Ki-tisa.
Ramban argues time and time again that unless there is 'clear cut' proof that a certain parshia is out of order, one must always assume that the events as well as the mitzvot in Chumash are recorded in the same order as they occurred. For example, the commandment to build the Mishkan was given before "chet ha'egel" despite its thematic connection to that event! (See Ramban.)
Even though this controversy of "mukdam u'm'uchar" relates primarily to 'parshiot' dealing with mitzvot, there are even instances when this controversy relates to the narrative itself. A classic example is found with regard to when Yitro comes to join Bnei Yisrael in the desert.
When Did Yitro Arrive?
Parshat Yitro opens with Yitro's arrival at the campsite of Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai (see 18:5). The location of this 'parshia' in Sefer Shmot indicates that Yitro arrives before Matan Torah, yet certain details found later in the 'parshia' (e.g. Moshe's daily routine of judging the people and teaching them God's laws - see 18:15-17) suggest that this event may have taken place after Matan Torah.
Based on this and several other strong proofs, Ibn Ezra claims that this entire parshia took place after Matan Torah ("ein mukdam u'm'uchar"). (See Board #2.) Despite these proofs, Ramban argues that since none of those proofs are conclusive, the entire 'parshia' should be understood as taking place before Matan Torah (i.e. when it is written - "yaish mukdam u'm'uchar...). (See Board #3.)
Rashi (see 18:13) suggests an interesting 'compromise' by 'splitting' the parshia in half! His opinion would agree with Ramban that Yitro first arrived before Matan Torah (18:1-12), However, the details found later (in 18:13-27), e.g. how Moshe taught the people etc., only took place after Matan Torah. (See Board #4.) This interpretation requires Rashi to explain that "mimacharat" in 18:13 does not mean the "next day," as it usually implies, but rather "the day after Moshe came down with the second Luchot."
On the other hand, Ibn Ezra (see 18:1), who claims that the entire 'parshia' takes place after Matan Torah, must explain why the Torah recorded this 'parshia' here instead. Therefore, he finds thematic significance in the juxtaposition between this 'parshia' and the story of Amalek:
"...And now I will explain to you why this parshia is written here [out of place]: Because the preceding parshia discussed the terrible deeds of Amalek against Israel; now in contrast the Torah tells us of the good deeds that Yitro did for Am Yisrael..." [see Ibn Ezra 18:1]The dispute concerning 'when Yitro came' illustrates the various methodological approaches we can take when confronted with apparent discrepancies. In general, whenever we find a 'parshia' that appears to be 'out of order,' we can either:
["Matan Torah" - the giving of the Ten Commandments at Har Sinai, together with the events that immediately precede and follow it (chapters 19-24), are commonly referred to as "Ma'amad Har Sinai".]
As we explained in our introduction, this "ma'amad" can be divided between its basic sections of narrative and mitzvah, as shown in Board #5.
Note that Bnei Yisrael's declaration of "na'asseh v'nishma" takes place during the ceremonial covenant recorded at the end of Mishpatim (24:7). In Parshat Yitro, when Bnei Yisrael accept God's proposition to keep His Torah, the people reply only with "na'asseh" (19:8), not "nishma."
Based on the order of parshiot, the "na'asseh v'nishma" ceremony takes places after Matan Torah. Nevertheless, Rashi [and most likely your first Chumash teacher] changes the order of the 'parshiot' and claims that this ceremony actually took place before Matan Torah. Why?
Rashi ("ein mukdam u'm'uchar") anchors his interpretation in the numerous similarities between chapter 19 and chapter 24. Therefore, he combines these two narratives together into one. (See Board #5.) [However, he must explain the reason why they are presented separately.]
Ramban ("yaish mukdam u'm'uchar) prefers to accept the chronological order of the 'parshiot' as they are presented in Chumash, and explains that this ceremony takes place after Matan Torah. (See Board #6.)
This dispute causes Rashi and Ramban to explain the details of chapter 24 differently. For example, during that ceremony Moshe reads the "Sefer Ha'Brit" in public (24:7). According to Rashi, "Sefer Ha'Brit" can not refer any of the mitzvot in Yitro or Mishpatim, for the ceremony occurs before Matan Torah; therefore, he explains that it refers to all of Chumash from Breishit until Matan Torah! According to Ramban, "Sefer Ha'Brit" refers to the Ten Commandments. This topic will be discussed in greater detail in next week's shiur on Parshat Mishpatim.