The Word of God
Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )
As the Jews await the revelation at Sinai, they gather at the foot of the mountain, anxiously anticipating the momentous events which would shortly unfold.
In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on this same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. And they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. (Exodus 19:1-3)
Moses receives initial instructions and the people respond enthusiastically:
And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob, and tell the People of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Me. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the people of Israel." And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do..." (Exodus 19: 3-8)
The people agree to uphold their part of the covenant, and heed to the word of God. Three days of preparation, both physical and spiritual, follow:
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount. (Exodus 19: 16-17)
The rabbinic tradition fills in numerous details of the events. In general, this is considered to be the finest hour of Jewish history, the apex of spiritual experience, which will only be surpassed when all the words of the Torah are fulfilled in the Messianic Age.
There are, nonetheless, some expressions which indicate a lowness of spirit and a hesitation in accepting the Divine word. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, describes the scene while focusing on the phrase "stood on the lower part of the mount":
Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: "This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, 'tis well; if not, you shall be buried there.'" Rabbi Aha ben Ya'acov observed: "This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah." Said Rava, "Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and accepted upon themselves, [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before."
While the term in question could be rendered either "by the foot of the mountain" or "under the mountain" the exposition seems strange. What made the rabbis declare that the acceptance of the Torah had not been whole-hearted?
We have seen that the Jewish people expressed complete willingness to adhere to the word of God, when they declared "all that the Lord has spoken we will do." 1 Furthermore, later there are additional expressions of their acceptance of Torah. While it should be noted that the exact sequence of events is somewhat challenging, the response of the people recorded is certainly part of the same general discussion, regardless of the specific details:
And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words which the Lord has said will we do." And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "All that the Lord has said will we do and hear." (Exodus 24: 4-7)
The people have responded positively on three occasions:
- In Exodus 19:8: And all the people answered together, and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do."
- Then again in Exodus 24:3: And all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words which the Lord has said will we do."
- Finally, the most famous response follows in Exodus 24:7: And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has said will we do and hear."
This last response is the impetus for Divine rapture:
Rabbi Eleazar said: "When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hear,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, 'Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, Bless the Lord, ye angels of His. You mighty in strength, that fulfil His word, that hearken unto the voice of His word. First they fulfil and then they hear.'"
On the one hand we notice that the people's acceptance of the Torah was clearly viewed as an act of heroism. On three occasions the people wholeheartedly accept the word of God.
Therefore, the contention that God lifted the mountain and threatened their lives turns the revelation into the proverbial "offer which they could not refuse." This does not seem consistent with either the Biblical account or the rabbinic tradition articulated in the other sources.
If we analyze the various responses we will find that the first we will do is a response to all that God has spoken. Here they respond affirmatively to "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant." The word of God is acceptable to the people.
In the second instance, the positive response is to And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words which the Lord has said will we do." Again, it is the word of God with which they are in agreement. Apparently, the people are understandably prepared to accept what God says. The awesome word of God is the subject of their acceptance.
While this was certainly a lofty response, this is not referred to as "the secret of the angels." Upon reflection one can even ask, what choice did they have? When God speaks -- directly to man -- does man truly have the ability to reject God's word?
The direct communication at Sinai was most certainly an overwhelming experience.
The direct communication at Sinai was most certainly an overwhelming experience. Furthermore, when Moses descends from Sinai and transmits and explains those words, the people must have perceived the message itself as an extension of the Divine. Perhaps this is what the rabbis mean when they speak of the mountain being lifted and dangled over them. Standing at Sinai, the people were overwhelmed, awed, unable to escape the immediacy of God's self-revelation.
Significantly, the Talmud relates that the Jewish People accepted the Torah during the era of Ahashverosh, the despotic ruler of the Purim epoch.
This period of Jewish history is described as a time of hester panim, "concealment of God's face." For the first time in Jewish history, the word of God was not heard. The age of prophecy had come to an end. Instead of the word of God, silence reverberated.
It was specifically in this state of spiritual and physical exile that the Jews renewed their collective vows. Now the mountain no longer hung precariously over their heads. Now they were no longer overwhelmed by the word of God. To accept the Torah at this point was totally different than that first time at the foot of the mountain.2
Despite God's silence, the Jews act heroically.
Now, despite the silence, the leaders act heroically and choose to anticipate what the Torah would have required of them in such a situation.
The relationship with God has shifted somewhat: With the end of the age of prophecy, man must take a proactive role in applying the Divine mandate, values and mores. This new process of extrapolation, analysis and application resulted in the institution of the first "rabbinic" holiday -- Purim.3 The establishment of this holiday indicated man's willingness to become an active partner with God. This was a new type of acceptance of the Torah, a new covenant.4
It was, however, the third acceptance of the Torah, which elicited the impassioned response from above.
And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has said will we do, and hear."
Upon hearing God's word, the People promise to "do and hear," or, perhaps, "do and obey."
The question that this raises is obvious. Clearly, the text seems inverted: "hear" should logically preceed "do." Man cannot "do" the word of God unless he hears it first. For this reason, translators have such difficulty with the phrase; it seems illogical.5
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his classic "Beis Halevi," explains (basing himself on the Zohar) that the "do" implies the performance of the commandments, while the "hear" implies Torah learning or involvement in Torah -- attentive listening to the Torah's teachings.
The initial acceptance of the Torah involved the word of God.6 The Jewish people agreed to listen exclusively to what God had said. This is surely a unique level of adherence, but one which pales in comparison to the level reached subsequently, when they vowed to accept that which emanates from the word of God, even that which will be distilled from the word of God hundreds of years in the future, when the actual word is no longer heard.
Perhaps the idea can be explained as follows: The declaration "we will do" implies listening to the word of God, and adhering and acting in accordance with the content of that word. The phrase "we will hear" implies ongoing listening.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, echoing the words of his great-grandfather and namesake, once explained that the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, "we will do and hear," is in the present tense. We declared at Sinai that we will always listen to God, with great care and attention we will listen to hear what God is telling us in any situation.
This became an issue in the time of Purim, when the people manifested their partnership with God. They listened attentively and added "rabbinic" law. Now they were no longer silent partners in their relationship with God. Now they boldly joined God, and manifested this special relationship.
This was the secret of the sole dominion of the angels.
This was the secret which had hitherto been the sole dominion of the angels. Angels are truly partners with God, serving as an extension of the Divine hand. If man simply obeys and fulfills the word of God, he is not a partner, but an adherent. When man says that he will forever listen to the Divine decree, he states that he will be a partner in the teaching and "production" of Torah.
This was the exalted level reached by the Jews at Sinai. They became partners with God. The true fulfillment of this partnership took place in Shushan. With the creation of a Rabbinic law, the leaders of that generation courageously displayed the willingness to manifest a partnership which was formed at the foot of a mountain millenia before.
- See Tosfot Shabbat 88a where this question is posed. (return to text)
- See Maharal Gur Aryeh Shmot 19:17. (return to text)
- See Comments of the Or Hachaim Hakadosh Shmot 19:5. (return to text)
- For more on this concept see Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichav in the Kedushat Halevi on Purim. (return to text)
- See the comments of the Kedushat Halevi on Shmot where he suggests that the people, "heard" without speech. This often the manner of prophetic, and mystic communication, and is the meaning of the word chashmal – chash mal, "spoken silence." (return to text)
- See the Beis Halevi Shmot 19:5 and 24:7. (return to text)