“G-d came from Sinai – having shone to them from Se’ir, having appeared from Mount Paran, and then approached with some of the holy myriads – from His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them.”
– (Devarim 33:2)
This sentence opens the blessing that Moses gives his people before he dies. The allusions in the verse are unclear: Why use different words to mean the appearance of light, namely shine, rise, and appear? Moreover, what does it mean that G-d appeared in Se’ir or Paran? One thing is clear: The essence of Israel is their having accepted the Torah and that will be their destiny and mission in the world. Yet, the meaning of the opening phrase remains mysterious.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a novel and ingenious solution to our puzzle. Paran and Se’ir are the dwelling places of Ishmael and Esau respectively. He says that G-d was in the process of showing His light to the world by offering the Torah to the peoples descended from Abraham, and this is expressed in the various verbs, ba, hofi’a, and zarach. These refer to the progressive stages of the appearance of the light in the world. Hofia (appeared) is the first stage out of darkness, a glimmer that heralds the coming of the light. Zarach (dawned) refers to the radiating of the light, as when dawn rises and the sky turns red. The light is still away but we can see it coming. Finally, with the verb ba (came), the light stands in its zenith. When the light comes to Israel, it illuminates the whole world as when the sun shines brightly over the horizon.
The meaning of the phrase would then be this: G-d had promised Abraham that he would receive a special mission from G-d and that could have been fulfilled in Ishmael and Esau. In fact, the Midrash describes, in a metaphoric style, how G-d “offered” the Torah to them. However, when these peoples developed the cultures of Paran and Se’ir, cultures filled with immorality and violence, it became clear that they lacked the proper characteristics to receive the Torah. The promise would have to wait until Israel, having developed the proper ethical and spiritual traits, was able to receive the Torah at Sinai. The light had come slowly at first. It glimmered with Ishmael and it dawned with Esau, but it could not rise fully until Israel accepted the Torah and then the Light of G-d entered its zenith.
This is the fundamental reason to rejoice with the Torah on this holiday: that Israel is the happy recipient of G-d’s light, and that it received the mission to propagate this light throughout the world, to become, as the prophet put it, “a light to the nations.” Israel rejoices at this assignment and celebrates the refining nature of the Torah that acts like a purifying “fire.” Moses’ blessing to Israel is to recall this lofty charge throughout the generations and Israel dances and makes merry as we commemorate this event of cosmic significance.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.