After the experience of מעמד הר סיני, Moshe starts to get a list of laws. Most of them are the interpersonal laws of פרשת משפטים, but there are a few ritual laws at the end of this parsha:
These are all halachot with which we are familiar except for the מזבח אדמה תעשה לי.
But that seems to be pushing the meaning, at least at the level of the פשט. Other מפרשים say that it is parallel to the mitzvah of אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם; don’t make anything with images:
Sforno has a very different interpretation:
There is a famous מחלוקת between Rashi and Ramban about the משכן. The commandment to build the משכן appears before the story of חטא העגל, but Rashi says that the commandment was in response to that sin, and if not for that sin, there would have been no משכן. Ramban says that we need to read the text in order and Moshe received the commandment to build the משכן during his first 40 days on הר סיני. Both agree, however, that once the people arrived in ארץ ישראל, they were commanded to build the בית המקדש with all its gold כלים. Sforno is saying something much stronger; he agrees that there would be a central place of worship:
But that central place of worship would simply be a מזבח אדמה תעשה לי, a lump of dirt. Only after חטא העגל did ה׳ tell Moshe that, since the people were so impressed by all that gold, they should use it for building the בית המקדש.
But Sforno is much more radical than that. He says that all the mitzvot that are recorded later, in ספר ויקרא on, were not part of the original laws given to Moshe on הר סיני. Only after they sinned did the people need things like structured ritual services (the מזבח אדמה ideal was for voluntary sacrifices), and even the laws of כשרות:
In Sforno’s view, after מעמד הר סיני, בני ישראל were at the spiritual level of the אבות. When we say that the אבות kept the Torah, we mean that they were sensitive to רצון ה׳ and would do the right thing without being explicitly commanded. That also means that, when values conflict, they could decide the right course of action. Yaakov could marry sisters. Similarly, בני ישראל would be expected to avoid things that “contaminated” the soul, without a detailed list of “eat this, not that”.
And that goes back to a fundamental argument about the nature of מתן תורה.
We know how “everybody” holds.
But Sforno is different. And his opinion is stronger than it appears; it’s not that the פרטות were not taught to Moshe at הר סיני, but that they didn’t exist. The Torah, as a respository of Divine wisdom, could have been read differently, without the פרטות that we have today.
We know that the scroll of the Torah (as opposed to the לוחות and the תורה שבעל פה that was given at הר סיני) was only completed in the fortieth year in the wilderness. There is a מחלוקת in the gemara about how it was written.
This is usually understood as an argument about how the scroll was composed:
Sforno says something radically different. חתומה means sealed, with its meaning hidden. מגילה means revealed, explicit. Is the Torah esoteric or exoteric?
There is a kabbalistic principle about the text of the Torah:
There is a way of reading the Torah not as מצוות but as שמותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא. I don’t know what that means, but Sforno says that I would have, had I not sinned with the עגל הזהב.
Rav Copperman summarizes:
Sforno is not claiming that, if we understood רצון ה׳ well enough, we would not have to keep the מצוות. Once ה׳ told Moshe, “this is how to interpret the text” in the אהל מועד, then that was the law. The Torah went from חתומה, unfixed, to מגילה, explicitly frozen, in stages over the forty years. In the eyes of Sforno, at the end of this week’s parsha, the ספר המצוות would have consisted of the מצוות בין אדם לחבירו of פרשת משפטים, and the simple מזבח אדמה תעשה לי. But we weren’t at that level and our relationship with הקב״ה would be fixed in form for eternity.