Moshe Rabbeinu and Matan Torah

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by Yair Kahn

A Strange Debate

In this week’s parasha, immediately prior to the Asseret Ha-dibbrot (Ten Commandments), an enigmatic dialogue is recorded (19:21-25). Hashem orders Moshe to warn the nation not to attempt to catch a glimpse of Hashem. Moshe argues that this is unnecessary, since Har Sinai was already placed out of limits to Bnei Yisrael. Nevertheless, Hashem overrules Moshe and insists that the nation be warned. Moshe complies and warns the people. Suddenly, directly following this warning, while Moshe is still among the people, Am Yisrael experience the revelation of the Asseret Ha-dibbrot. Some obvious questions arise. Why did Hashem insist on repeating the warning to the people? What is so significant about this strange debate that it is recorded in the Torah? Is there any connection between this warning or debate and the mass revelation that followed?

According to R. Yossi (Shabbat 87a), Hashem and Moshe differed, as it were, regarding another issue as well. While Hashem demanded two days of preparation prior to matan Torah, Moshe decided to add a third day (see also Rashi, Shemot 19:15). Although the Almighty accepted Moshe’s modification, we must attempt to understand the significance of this episode. Furthermore, we cannot avoid pondering the relationship between this incident and the mysterious debate mentioned above. We will return to these issues later, after a short discussion of the Asseret Ha-dibbrot.

Ten Commandments or Two

It is commonly assumed that all Ten Commandments were issued directly from Hashem to the children of Israel. This was not, however, the assumption of our Sages. We are all familiar with the tradition that there are 613 commandments (see Makot 24a). This number is derived from the verse, “Torah tziva lanu Moshe” – “Moshe commanded us Torah.” The numerical value, known as gematriya, of the word Torah is 611. This is the number of mitzvot commanded by Moshe. The additional two – the first two commandments of the Asseret Ha-dibbrot – were issued directly by Hashem. This tradition is supported by the switch from first person of the first two dibbrot (“I am Hashem your God) to the third person in the remaining eight (“Do not take Hashem’s name in vain”).

The Ibn Ezra (20:1) argues that all ten dibbrot were given directly from Hashem. He supports this position by quoting pesukim that clearly attribute the Asseret Ha-dibbrot in their entirety to Hashem(see Devarim 5:19).

The Ramban (20:7), disturbed by this seeming contradiction, suggests a compromise. All Ten Commandments were spoken by Hashem directly to the children of Israel, but the people only managed to comprehend the first two. As a result, the last eight were repeated by Moshe Rabbeinu. This compromise neatly resolves the contradictory sources, but it leads to quite a puzzling conclusion. Were the first two commandments easier to understand than the last eight? Is it simpler to comprehend the existence of an infinite, invisible, incomprehensible God than the prohibition against murder or theft? And what was the purpose of reciting commandments to the people that they found impossible to understand? The Ramban addresses these difficulties, but I would like to suggest an alternate solution based on a statement of the Ramban in his comments on Sefer Ha-mitzvot.

The Experience of Sinai

Moshe Rabbeinu warned the Jewish People never to forget the day that they received the dibbrot at Har Sinai:

Be careful and diligently guard your souls, lest you forget those things which you witnessed with your own eyes and they be removed from your hearts all the days of your life. And you should inform these events to your children and you children’s children – the day you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev…” (Devarim 4:9-10)

The Ramban writes that this pasuk is the source for a biblical mitzvat lo ta’aseh (negative commandment), one that the Rambam omitted in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot. The Ramban maintains that there is an issur de-oraita against forgetting the experience of Har Sinai. Memory and awareness of this great encounter between Am Yisrael and the Infinite must be passed down to future generations as a basic part of the great Massoretic tradition. It is this living tradition that Am Yisrael personally experienced Divine revelation that upholds our faith in absolute terms.

This distinction between comprehension of the dibbrot, as opposed to the experience of ma’amad Har Sinai, is accepted by the Rambam as well. In his Guide (II:33), the Rambam denies that the Jewish People as a whole could have directly received the word of God at Har Sinai. (The reason has to do with the Rambam’s theory of prophecy; II:32). Therefore, the Rambam claims, only Moshe comprehended the content of the dibbrot, whereas the Jewish People only heard the “great voice” without comprehending the meaning, or even actually hearing the words.

It is clear that the significance of the revelation of the Asseret Ha-dibbrot is not limited to the specific content of the commandments. The experience of the Divine revelation and its theological and religious implications are the crucial components of Ma’amad Har Sinai. As a matter of fact, this was the stated purpose of the revelation:

And Hashem said to Moshe, “I am hereby coming to you in the midst of a cloud in order that the nation should hear as I speak to you and in you they should believe forever.” (Shemot 19:9)

In fact, according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, ch. 8), our faith in Moshe and the Torah is not based on miracles. Rather, it is rooted in ma’amad Har Sinai, which was experienced by the entire nation. The Rambam states:

They did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu because of the miracles that he did, for one whose belief is based on miracles has doubt in his heart that the miracle may have been done by magic or sorcery… Based on what did they believe in him? On ma’amad Har Sinai, that our eyes saw and not a stranger’s, our ears heard and not another’s; the fire and the sounds and the torches, and he [Moshe] entered the fog and the divine voice spoke to him and we heard …

In fact, the previously mentioned Ramban on Sefer Ha-mitzvot echoes this Rambam in explaining the significance of the prohibition not to forget ma’mad Har Sinai.

Based on the above, it is no longer perplexing that incomprehensible commandments were recited by Hashem at Har Sinai, since it is not necessarily the content of the mitzvot that was critical, but the experience of divine revelation. However, we have not yet explained the distinction between the first two dibbrot and the remaining eight.

Study of the people’s reaction to Ma’amad Har Sinai is instructive. After experiencing the divine revelation, Am Yisrael requested that the remainder of the Torah be received by Moshe Rabbeinu, and subsequently transmitted to them. This request, while mentioned only briefly in our parasha, is recorded in greater detail in Parashat Vaetchanan:

On this day, we have witnessed that Hashem can speak to man and he can survive. And now, why should we perish… if we continue to listen to the voice of Hashem our God any longer we shall die. For who is of flesh that has heard the voice of a living God speaking from amidst the fire as we have and lived? You approach and hear all that Hashem our God shall say, and speak to us all thatHashem our God shall say to you. (Devarim 5:21-24)

At first glance, this argument seems somewhat contradictory and inconsistent. After reaching the conclusion that one can survive divine revelation, the people paradoxically avoid further revelation lest they perish.

The solution, however, is simple. The experience at Sinai was a dual one. Primarily, it brought about a profound awareness of the absolute and infinite nature of Hashem’s existence. Through the Sinaitic revelation, Am Yisrael realized that the essence of true objective existence is only the existence of the Almighty. However, there was a secondary aspect of the Sinai experience which resulted from this awareness – the people in their finitude were enveloped by the infinity of the divine encounter. They became acutely aware that, aside from Hashem, nothing else really exists. They therefore realized that their own finite lives were actually meaningless and insignificant. Although Am Yisrael survived matan Torah, they felt overwhelmed and erased by the awareness that only Hashem exists in absolute terms.

This idea is expressed in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 41) in midrashic style. The midrash states that the literally breathtaking experience of Ma’amad Har Sinai actually caused the demise of the children of Israel, but they were subsequently revived.

We have already established that it was the experience of Sinai, as opposed to the content of the commandments, that was of critical importance. Furthermore, we claimed that the content of this experience was of the absolute nature of Hashem’s existence and the negation of the existence of all else. Based on these two premises, we can return to the distinction between the first two dibbrot and the remaining eight. After all, the first two dibbrot reflect the Sinai experience; “Anokhi” expresses the absolute existence of Hashem, while “lo yihiyeh lekha” refers to the negation of the existence of all else. Although Am Yisrael did not manage to comprehend the content of the Ten Commandments, they profoundly experienced the divine revelation. “Anokhi” and “lo yihiyeh lekha” were experienced deeply by the nation.

Hashem was pleased with the reaction of the people: “And Hashem said unto me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you; they have done well all that they have spoken’” (Devarim 5:25). It is interesting, however, that according to Chazal, Moshe was not pleased at all (see Rashi, Devarim 5:24).

Perhaps we can suggest that Moshe Rabbeinu, who had a singular and unique relationship with Hashem, perceived the purpose of the dibbrot as an opportunity for the entire nation to elevate themselves to his level and to fully comprehend the infinite word of God. In his characteristic humility, Moshe saw no reason to differentiate between himself and others. He was therefore disappointed when the people rejected this opportunity, preferring that the Torah be transmitted indirectly. Hashem, on the other hand, knew that this was not the main purpose of the Sinaitic revelation. The Divine plan was thatAm Yisrael should collectively experience Sinai and develop a collective awareness of the essential messages of the revelation. Am Yisrael must become profoundly aware of “anokhi” and “lo yihiyeh lekha.”

We can at this point return to the previously mentioned differences between the approach of Moshe and that of Hashem to matan Torah. The addition of the extra day of preparation described by thegemara is symbolic of Moshe’s attempt to prepare the people to comprehend the infinite word of God. The Almighty, while accepting Moshe’s proposal of an additional day, insisted on frightening the people with a stern warning immediately prior to the dibbrot. Moshe Rabbeinu was reluctant to warn the people, for he perceived Sinai basically as a learning experience. He correctly assumed that to frighten the nation immediately prior to matan Torah would be educationally counterproductive, since it would be difficult for the people to comprehend if they were terrified. Hashem, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with the EXPERIENCE of revelation – that Am Yisrael should become acutely aware of “anokhi,” the all-encompassing, absolute nature of the existence of God. Hashem was interested in the nation discovering the frightful truth of “lo yihiyeh lekha” – the negation of the existence of the entire finite order. Hashem realized that the people had already been warned, but demanded nevertheless that the dibbrotbe issued specifically within the context of the frightening Divine warning.

Both the argument as described by the peshat and that described by the gemara revolve around the same point of disagreement. Moshe wanted the Jews to understand God’s word, to relate to the contents of revelation, and to have an intellectual learning experience of Torah. (That is why, after all, he is Moshe Rabbeinu). Therefore, he wants additional preparation time and objects to increasing the emotional stress. God viewed Sinai as being primarily experiential, rather than intellectual.

After the dibbrot, when the people rejected further direct revelation, Moshe Rabbeinu was distraught. He felt that he had failed in his mission. Hashem responded that the divine revelation at Sinai had, in fact, achieved its purpose. “O that their hearts would remain such to fear me and guard all the commandments all their days” (Devarim 5:6).

It is incumbent upon us to pass on the tradition of Sinai throughout the generations. This obligation is not limited to the details learned at Sinai, but includes the profound experience of “anokhi” and “lo yihiyeh lekha.” This awareness must not be lost, and it must be transmitted as a living tradition throughout Jewish history: “And you shall inform your children and your children’s children” (Devarim 4:9).

This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission.

About Yair Kahn

Rav Yair Kahn has been a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion since 1987 and is head of its Overseas Students Program. He has been the coordinator of the Virtual Beit Midrash Gemara Iyun Shiur for several years.

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  1. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time until Open Orthodox rabbis are officiating at gay marriages

    First you will see an effort to normalize such relations within Orthodox society — shuls accepting same-sex couples as families, shul announcements (Mazel Tov to Mr. X and Mr. Y on the bar mitzvah of their son), accepting their children into day schools, etc. And then someone will say, well we already accept them that way, so how can we be so hypocritical and not perform a wedding for them? Then just trot out a couple of psukim about “justice,” maybe a Rav Kook quote that has nothing to do with the issue, and then you will have same-sex chasunahs.

    Followed by discrimination suits against catering halls, caterers, wedding bands and assorted other service providers.

  2. I think voicing your opinion that ” it’s only a matter of time until Open Orthodox rabbis are officiating at gay marriages” is a mistake.

    First, judging others harshly is assur. Putting in people’s minds an image of who they are based on something you’re guessing they’re going to do is IMHO, wrong.

    Second, by putting it out there, you also make it more likely: (a) you make it a topic of conversation and (b) you remove the motivation of not taking a step that would lead to ostracisim if you ostracise them in advance for it. For that matter, you remove the traction against any innovation that fear provides, effectively greasingthe slippery slope.

    • I hear you. But warning people about a potential danger is important.

      • Hold on, he said:
        “I only officiate at marriages between Jewish men and women according to the framework of the tradition, but I will argue (and advocate) adamantly for the political rights of gay people to marry.”

        He’s only for their political rights. He’s not saying it’s OK from a religious perspective.

  3. Breaking news: Tamar Friedman received a get: link

  4. I read some, though not all, of the moetzet’s meeting and I have a suggestion for them If you want to appeal to the secular as “brothers” so they revoke the “decree” (which was in R. Shteinman’s address), don’t compare them to the communists (which appeared more than once). It is a particularly odious comparison. And you have problems with OO and not the hareidi rabbinic leadership?

    • I don’t get involved in Israeli politics, and that is what this is. I only included this item because I found it interesting. It reminds me of the rabbinic conferences in 18th century Russia.

  5. So (some) OO rabbis are going to go as close to the line as they possibly can while trying to stay 1 millimeter away. A model for Torah leadership?

    On which other Torah prohibitions will OO rabbis dance with fire in the name of “justice”?

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