Life and death. Until the third day of creation, everything was merely matter or energy. But when G-d created plants, he created life – and the inevitability of death.
G-d passed judgment on His own creations as he performed them. G-d calls the light “good”, but he refrains from calling the separation between the waters above and below “good” (from which we learn that our role involves unification). And the third day was special, because G-d labels it “good” two separate times: when the water gathers together (unifies) to form seas, and when the earth brings forth grass, herb yielding seed, fruit trees – and their seeds. Life was formed on the third day, concurrent with the necessity of death and the notion of regeneration.
Mortality is our greatest motivation: our lives are going to end, and while we may delay the inevitable, or make life more enjoyable while it lasts, the end will come for all of us. It is the fact of our deaths that drives us to make our lives meaningful and productive. “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2)
And so in the Torah, life and death are always twinned on the third day. Shimon and Levi dispensed their idea of justice on the inhabitants of Shechem on the third day by slaughtering them all. Pharoah disposed life and death to the butler and baker on the third day. “Joseph said unto [his brothers] the third day. ‘This do, and live; for I fear God.’” (Gen. 42:18). The plague of darkness lasted for three days, and the Torah seems to suggest that the decision to kill all the Egyptian first-born happened on the third day as well. And so, too, Sinai, where we received the Torah on the third day, was the place where the covenant of din, justice, was formed between the Jewish people and G-d. On the third day, Isaiah told Hezekiah that he would be healed. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days, before returning to the world.
But the third day is about much more than just life and death, a day of judgment and the sword. The third day of creation, when when G-d created plants, was critical for what plants do. Plants live and die, it is true – but in their lives, they grow upward, toward the light that G-d had already called “good.” Elevating from the earth toward the heavens is the essence of kedusha, holiness. On the third day, the conditions are right for epochal events, events between man and G-d on the cosmic scale. It is a time when men can look up, and connect with G-d. The third day is a day for holiness.
And so Moshe tells Pharoah, repeatedly, that he wants to bring the Jews to a place that is a three days’ journey away, in order to sacrifice to G-d. The opportunity to grow is strongest on the third day.
It was on the third day of travel that Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the mountain where he was to sacrifice his son. And on that mountain, Isaac was so close to G-d that he nearly died, an experience so powerful that many Midrashim suggest that Isaac was actually sacrificed, and then brought back to life. Life, connection to G-d, and death, all on the third day.
And so, too, at Sinai, at the end of another three day period, the midrash tells us that the Jews were so overpowered by Hashem’s presence that we touched death, and were returned to life. Sinai was the ultimate “out of body” experience – the setting was surreal, and our bodies and souls were overpowered by the experience.
The starting date for Sinai is particularly intriguing. Why did the Jewish people have to be apart from their spouses for three days? We could suggest that G-d was re-enacting the creation of the world: the Jewish people, following in the path of Hashem, would not engage in making living (and dying) things until the third day. Imitation of G-d’s infinite greatness would allow us to appreciate the magnitude of the events at Sinai, the importance of receiving the greatest creative gift of all, and one that echoes the creation of the world itself. For it was on the third day that we received the tree of life that we call the Torah.