The sequence of events in this parasha is confusing. In the previous parasha - Yitro, the Torah recounted all that transpired before the giving of the Torah up to the middle of the fourth day of the month of Sivan, omitting the events of the rest of the fourth and fifth days and continuing with the giving of the Torah on the sixth. Without even mentioning that G‑d told Moses to ascend Mt. Sinai again after the giving of the Torah to learn the details of the Law, the Torah proceeds to outline these laws in parashat Mishpatim. Then, after giving this outline and telling of G‑d's promise of protection and assistance in the conquest of the Canaanite nations, the Torah backtracks to the giving of the Torah. It describes the preparations of the fourth and fifth days of Sivan (which were mysteriously skipped in parashat Yitro), briefly recapitulates the giving of the Torah, and describes Moses' ascent to learn the Law (which would seem to belong between Yitro and Mishpatim). This puzzling and ambiguous sequence demands an explanation, for, although we have an adage that "the Torah is not [particular] with chronological order", it deviates from the chronological description of events only when there is good reason to do so.

G‑d implanted His essence in us when He gave us the Torah….

In rearranging the narrative, the Torah accentuates the dual effect of the Revelation at Sinai. As we have mentioned previously, the Torah is G‑d's guide to living life, but it is also much more than that. "I have written and bestowed My very soul in the Torah"; G‑d implanted His essence in us when He gave us the Torah. Thus, giving the Torah established a double connection between G‑d and Israel: a contractual agreement based on commandments, compliance, reward, and punishment, and a covenantal bond transcending the parameters of behavior and forging an inviolable, eternal bond between them. The former was expressed through G‑d's commandments and our acceptance of them; the latter through the rituals and rites surrounding the revelation.

To help us recognize this distinction, the Torah describes these two aspects separately. Parashat Yitro deals almost exclusively with the contractual agreement - the mitzvot that G‑d gave, specifically, the Ten Commandments. When relating the preparations for the Revelation at Sinai, too, the emphasis in this parasha is on the mitzvot, the instructions that G‑d gave as preparation. Following this revelation, G‑d issued more mitzvot, in order demonstrate how His law is to permeate and determine even the seemingly logical conventions of a just society1. This continues through the majority of parashat Mishpatim, until the end of chapter 23).

From then on, parashat Mishpatim focuses on the covenantal bond between the Jewish people and G‑d, which gave them the status of G‑d's servants. It describes the preparations of the Jewish people that heralded the covenant: how they proclaimed "we will do and we will obey" (their unconditional acceptance of the Torah); how Moses wrote down the "Book of the Covenant"; how they built an altar, offered sacrifices, and were sprinkled with "the blood of the covenant". (Similarly, this parasha places great emphasis on ascending the mountain - see Ex. 24:1, 9, 12, 13, 15, 18, for the focus here is the covenant, through which the Jewish people rose spiritually and connected to G‑d. This also reflects the second element on the cosmic level, the empowerment of the world to draw nearer to G‑d.)

The narrative of Moses' ascent after the Revelation at Sinai is likewise split into two separate accounts. This is because when G‑d summoned Moses to ascend Mt. Sinai again after the Revelation at Sinai and remain their for forty days and nights to receive the rest of the Torah, it was in order to present him with both of these aspects of the Torah, in more concrete form. He taught him the numerous detailed laws of parashat Mishpatim - the mitzvot, and He gave him the two tablets, which served as enduring testimony to the covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people. (This is seen in the terms the Torah uses to refer to them: "the Tablets of Testimony" (Ex. 31:18; 32:15; 34:29) and "the Tablets of the Covenant." (Deut. 9:9, 11, 15) The first element - the laws of Mishpatim - follows the first account of the Revelation at Sinai; the second element - "come up…and I will give you the tablets of stone" (Ex. 24:12) - follows the second account.

The sequence in this narrative is now clear: First the Torah describes the contractual, mitzvot element of the Torah, in its entirety - by relating all those parts of the event, from the preparatory mitzvot, to the Ten Commandments, the mitzvot of the altar, and the mitzvot of Mishpatim that G‑d taught Moses on the mountain. After its exhaustive portrayal of this side of the coin, the Torah sets out to convey the covenantal element by describing those details of the event, from start to finish.

Immediately thereafter, the Torah proceeds to the design for the Tabernacle - although its mandate, Rashi notes (Ex. 31:18; 33:11), came much later - after the sin of the Golden Calf and Yom Kippur. This is because the bond of the covenant culminated in the construction of the Tabernacle, by means of which G‑d dwelled in the midst of the Jewish people.

[Adapted by Moshe Yakov Wisnefsky from Likutei Sichot, vol. 26, pp. 153-9; Copyright 2001 chabad of california /]