When we contemplate Sefer Shemot, the book of the Torah we are currently reading, its structure is initially puzzling. The book begins with four Parshiyot (Shemot, Va'era, Bo, and Beshalach), which tell the story of the Jews' enslavement and redemption from Egypt in more-or-less chronological order. Next, in Parashat Yitro, the Torah tells of Yitro's arrival, his recommendation to create a system of courts, the giving of the Torah, and the first command to build a stone altar. Afterwards, this week, the Torah gives us a long succession of laws, heavily emphasising interpersonal and monetary matters, followed by a much more detailed retelling of Moshe climbing the Mountain and learning there for forty days and nights. Next week, we begin two parshiyot (Terumah and Tetzaveh), which guide the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Temple our ancestors used in the desert. Then, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we will read of the golden calf. Finally, we will repeat the various commands of building the Mishkan in Prashiyos Vayakhel and Pekudei.
The order is so strange that it famously led Rashi to state that Hashem wrote the Torah out of chronological order over the next few weeks. According to Rashi, the two tellings of Moshe's ascent to Mt Sinai (last week and this week) go together. Forty days later, the Jews sinned with the golden calf. The Torah then tells very little, but we know Moshe remained on the Mountain for another two forty-day periods with one day in between. He descended on Yom Kippur (122 days after the Torah was given) and instructed the Israelites on building the Mishkan the next day. However, this only begs another question: why did Hashem tell this story in the Torah outside the correct chronological order?
We can find the answer to this question in the themes of the different sections. Last week, we read about how Yitro came and suggested establishing a court system. Similarly, the first half of Parashat Mishpatim (this week's Parasha) relates to the laws those judges must enforce. Following the establishment of a court system, the Torah relates how Moshe climbed the Mountain and delivered the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Similarly, after the detailed list of laws in Parshat Mishpatim, we hear again about how Moshe climbed the Mountain, learning that he would remain there for forty days and forty nights. We also learn much more about how he went up the Mountain and with whom. Finally, after the Ten Commandments, we hear about the first altar. The altar lies at the centre of Temple worship; after hearing of Moshe climbing the Mountain this week, the Torah gives the first set of detailed instructions for building the temporary Temple that the Israelites would use in the desert.