This week’s parasha starts with a long list of laws, but notably does not start with a וידבר ה׳ אל משה. That actually is in last week’s parasha:
Rashi makes the point that this is part of a very long message to Moshe that started right after מעמד הר סיני:
And these laws specifically are the ones relevant to everyone’s daily lives; it forms the “Shulchan Aruch” of halacha. In fact, that’s where the term comes from:
And the message continues almost to the end of the parasha, when ה׳ spells out the terms of כיבוש ארץ ישראל:
All this is basically what last week we called Plan A: ה׳ would give the laws to Moshe and people would “overhear” so that they would believe Moshe when he taught them the laws. Notably, Moshe is still at the foot of the mountain for all this. He is called up in the next paragraph:
After the revelation to the elders, Moshe is called up by himself for the 40 days in which he will get the Torah as a whole:
That’s the chronology according to Ramban, who reads פרק כד in sequence: מעמד הר סיני, then ואלה המשפטים, then אל משה אמר עלה אל ה׳. There’s a problem with this: אל משה אמר means “To Moshe He *had* said”; it’s in the past perfect, implying that this statement was *before* the chronological sequence of the narrative. Ramban is sensitive to the problem, and says that the wording is to emphasize that this message is to Moshe alone, unlike the laws of ואלה המשפטים:
But there’s also a thematic problem: if the ברית ceremony was after מעמד הר סיני, then the impact of נעשה ונשמע is lost. בני ישראל don’t willingly accept the Torah; they were forced to:
After the miracles and the experience of מעמד הר סיני, they could not be said to have “accepted” the Torah. So Rashi says that the entire paragraph was before מעמד הר סיני (this is a מחלוקת in the Mechilta):
To review the chronology:
So, on the first day of Sivan the people arrive at הר סיני and on day 2 they get the general plan and say נעשה. Day 3 they get Plan A (ישמע העם בדברי עמך) and reject it. Day 4 they get Plan B (ביום השלשי ירד ה׳ לעיני כל העם) and Moshe gets the plan for the elite (עלה אל ה׳ אתה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל). שמות כד:א is part of the same conversation as שמות יט:י-יא. That’s why it doesn’t start with a ויאמר ה׳ אל משה. Moshe brings Plan B to the people and they say נעשה. Day 5 Moshe leads the ברית ceremony and reads the ספר הברית that he had written the night before, and they say נעשה ונשמע. The elite get a vision of מעשה מרקבה. Day 6 is מעמד הר סיני.
Why? Why split the story in two? I think that the text is telling us there are really two stories here: revelation and covenant. It goes back to the purpose of מעמד הר סיני. ה׳ gives בני ישראל their mission:
The revelation inherent in giving the Torah was universal:
Sforno understands that כי לי כל הארץ means “because all the earth is Mine”; Israel is an עם סגלה only in order to act as a conduit for spreading the knowledge of ה׳ to the rest of the world.
Similarly, the Netsiv:
But the ברית was for the Jewish people alone:
The dialectic between univeralism and particularism is one of the great paradoxes of Judaism.
The focus of the Torah now turns to the particular relationship between הקב״ה and בני ישראל as represented by the משכן: (שמות כה:ח) ועשו לי מקדש; ושכנתי בתוכם.