Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
"You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens" (Ex. 20:19)
By Shimon Eliezer (Shubert) Spero* The historic event known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai is described in at least three places in the Torah,1 and information presented in one place does not appear in another. Nevertheless, from all these descriptions it is difficult to obtain a complete and clear picture. This should come as no surprise, however, for we are dealing with a unique and unprecedented event: a public revelation of G-d before the eyes of an entire people. This one-time event is of supreme importance in several regards: religious, social, legal, and theological. Below we shall attempt to gain an understanding of its significance in each area.
Religious significance: G-d chose the place, the time and the word with which to reveal His will and His laws to the people, and therefore over the generations the focus has been primarily on the content of this revelation: what are the things that G-d demands of man, and what is the purpose of mankind in His world? Hence, for one, the attention focused on the Decalogue.
Social significance: All the Israelites stood together, heard together and responded together, "we shall faithfully obey." This happening forged a special bond between the people who were there, a bond of mutual responsibility and mutual assistance, leading to the principle of "all Israel are sureties one for another."2
Legal-moral significance: it becomes clear from the text that G-d did not give Israel the Torah as a "gift," nor as a "burden" which He imposed on them by virtue of His being G-d; rather, G-d wished that they accept the Torah of their own free will,3 by their consent. Indeed, thus it was: "All the people answered as one, saying, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do!'" (Ex. 19:8). Also of Moses, as the representative of the Oral Law, and of the legislation by the Rabbis throughout the generations,4 the Israelites said, "everything that the Lord our G-d tells you, we will willingly do" (Deut. 5:24).
In other words, the legal and moral foundation of the Israelites' obligation to obey the Lord's commandments is the undertaking which they assumed upon themselves. Furthermore, the consent between giver and recipient is called a "covenant"—an agreement which is mutually binding on both sides. Moreover, two concepts emerge from this covenant, concepts bearing on and essential to the theology of Judaism: Israel is the "chosen people" and its special destiny is to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6), a light unto the nations, and a blessing to all the families of the earth.5
Theological significance: the Israelites themselves, even while standing at the base of the mountain, sensed that something special and of the utmost importance was taking place, as they said to Moses: "We have seen this day that man may live though G-d has spoken to him" (Deut. 5:21).6 The real innovation, however, was that the Creator of the Universe desired to speak to specific human beings, namely, with the small group known as Israelites. Maimonides, for his part, sees in this event the basis for believing in the truth of the prophecy given us by Moses, as he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 8.11):
What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger's. Our ears heard, and not another's. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, "Moses, Moses, go tell them the following…"
…How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses' prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? [Exodus 19:9] states: "I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after."
Apparently Maimonides meant to say that knowledge of this important event did not come to the Israelites by way of a story conveyed from mouth to mouth, rather as a living, personal experience; "oureyes saw…our ears heard" how the Lord delegated Moses and relayed His word to the Israelites through Moses' mouth.7 It seems to me, however, that Maimonides' emphasis on the senses, "our eyes" and "our ears," is somewhat problematic, especially in view of the verse, "All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance" (Ex. 20:15).
In other words, even after all the sensational theatrics of fire and smoke, thunder and lightning, the people still "stood at a distance," – that is, they still had not caught on to what was taking place. Indeed, this is only to be expected, for the very encounter with G-d does not occur with simple perception of the senses; rather, it involves consciousness that goes beyond the senses.8 All those who were present sensed with their entire being that they were standing in the presence of their Maker, who knew them to the full depth of their being, and this sense aroused in them not only terror but also admiration. All this is subsumed in the bold description: "Face to face the Lord spoke to you" (Deut. 5:4) on the mountain out of the fire. Like a human being speaking to his fellow, face to face, conversing with him, answering him, and looking into his eyes—thus the Israelites felt at Mount Sinai: each person was sure he or she was in direct contact with a tremendous force having human characteristics such as will, purpose, self-identity, and moral values; a presence that is sensed simultaneously as being altogether "other" yet altogether "close."9
Now we can see how the Lord's words to the Israelites, "You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens" (Ex. 20:19) can be interpreted: you all had such a momentous and convincing experience, as if you saw that I am the one speaking with you from another realm, something super-natural, "inventor of all inventors." Consequently, the revelation at Mount Sinai is the epistemological foundation of Judaism.10 Indeed, the main knowledge that comes to us from the Theophany at Mount Sinai, that there is a moral Creator of the universe who speaks with human beings, we received through a super-sensual experience, first-hand and not mediated.
The text goes on to emphasize the important role of the Voice in the entire event: "For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living G-d speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived?" (Deut. 5:23), as well as: "You heard the sound of words [Heb. kol devarim]but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice [Heb. kol]" (Deut. 4:12).11What is meant by kol devarim? Kol alone can mean simply a sound and not a human voice, and a human voice can be a shout and not a comprehendible expression. Therefore the text stresses kol devarim—a voice that utters words: you, who heard it, could make out comprehendible words and sentences.
Clearly the main objective of revelation at Mount Sinai was to give the Torah, to reveal the Lord's will and to hand down a detailed way of life to the chosen people. But aside from its content, this Voice had a special quality and miraculous nature, such that the one who heard it could recognize from the Voice itself something that pertained to the Speaker. The Voice of the Lord is multi-faceted:12 "The voice of the Lord is power; the voice of the Lord is majesty" (Ps. 29:4). Sometimes the voice of the Lord assumes the form of words and sentences, as in the Ten Commandments, and sometimes the voice of the Lord becomes fiat: "For He spoke, and it was" (Ps. 33:9), as it is written, "With ten utterances the world was created" (Avot 5.1).
But whether the voice of the Lord appears as might or as beauty, whether as Teaching or in nature, one can expect the product to bear witness to its Maker, just as one who contemplates creation is filled with admiration for the wisdom, the momentous powers and the beauty, and will attribute these characteristic to the Creator. Thus, when the voice of G-d takes the form of words of Torah, those who study them today can sense their divine source. Perhaps the verse, "The Lord spoke those words—those and no more [Heb. ve-lo yasaf]—to your whole congregation at the mountain, with a mighty voice out of the fire and the dense clouds" (Deut. 5:19) alludes precisely to this. Rashi interprets ve-lo yasaf as meaning "has not ceased," as if to say that the impact of the voice is still felt in words of Torah. May we be blessed to experience this in our study of Torah.
Translated by Rachel Rowen
* Dr. Shimon Eliezer (Shubert) Spero is the Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University and author of Aspects of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Philosophy of Judaism: An Analytic Approach (Ktav, 2009)
2 Shevuot 39a. Also see Rashi on Ex. 19:2: "Israel encamped (sing.) there in front of the mountain—as a single person, with one mind."
3 "His sovereignty they willingly accepted" (from the evening prayers).
4 The duty of obeying the Rabbis stems from the Torah: "You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you" (Deut. 17:10, 11).
5 Ex. 19:15; Gen. 12:3.
6 Although Moses was told that "man may not see Me and live" (Ex. 33:20); apparently hearing is not the same as seeing.
7 On the verse, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians" (Ex. 19:4), the Mekhilta says: "what I tell you is not received by tradition. I do not have to send documents to you. I do not have to present witnesses to you, but you yourselves have seen what I have done to the Egyptians." (Lauterbach ed., pp. 201-202)
8 Rabbi Akiva's interpretation of Exodus 20:15, "All the people saw the thunder…" is well-known: "They saw that which is heard" (from the Mekhilta); that is, the people's perception was different from all normal perception. They received the knowledge, but not by normal seeing or hearing, rather by extra-sensory perception.
9 Unlike Buber and his followers, who say that there was true divine revelation at Sinai, but void of content, that is, without utterance and without words.
10 Epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature of knowledge.
11 That this was a special "voice" is supported by what is said about the Tent of Meeting: "When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover" (Num. 7:89), on which Rashi comments: "One might think it was a very low voice. Scripture, however, states 'the voice' (with the definite article—the well-known Voice)—it was that thunderous Voice with which He spoke to him on Sinai."
12 As the Sages said, "[G-d] was revealed on the sea as a hero who makes war, and He was revealed at Mount Sinai as an old man, full of mercy" (Mekhilta, on Ex. 15:3), meaning the very nature of the voice changes from one manifestation to the next. In Egypt and on the Red Sea, the voice of the Lord was heard as the sound of deliverance, whereas in the wilderness, it was heard as the voice of a leader, showing the way and providing sustenance, and at Sinai, as the voice of a giver of laws and commandments, and the nature of response is determined accordingly. To an act of deliverance one responds with songs of praise and thanksgiving, and when G-d appears as the lawgiver, the appropriate response is "we will faithfully obey."