Parashat Yitro: Moshe Rabbeinu and Matan Torah

  • Rav 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 that Hashem 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 that Am 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 the gemara 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 dibbrot be 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).





            I would like to place Rav Kahn's explanation within the wider context of the medieval philosophic discussion of matan Torah.


            The Rambam (Guide, p.2, ch. 33) 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 (ibid. ch.32), which we will not go into here. Therefore, the Rambam claims that only Moshe comprehended the contents of the dibbrot, whereas the Jewish people only heard the "great voice" without comprehending the meaning, or even actually hearing the words.  The Ramban (20,15 and elsewhere) disagrees, stressing the accepted masora of the Sages that at least the first two commandments were transmitted directly (and hence not included in the verse, "Torah tziva lanu Moshe").  Various philosophers of the middle ages viewed the Rambam's view as basically uprooting the basic value of the experience of matan Torah - a direct revelation of Torah to each and every Jew.


            Rav Kahn's explanation can provide a middle way between the two, allowing the Rambam to preserve the intellectual level needed to achieve prophecy, without foregoing the religious significance of the direct perception of the first two dibbrot.  For, as he has shown, one does not have to intellectually understand the words of the first two dibbrot in order to directly assimilate their meaning.  The non- intellectual experience of the Jews at Har Sinai directly inculcated into them the powerful realization and awareness of God's reality, beyond what intellectually they undoubtedly already had known.  Even more so, it impressed upon them, children of the Egyptian polytheistic culture, the total negation of the possibility of any rival to God, of any sharing in his absolute existence.  As we have seen in Parashot Va-eira and Bo, this theme of the uniqueness of God is one of the important motifs of yetziat mitzraim in general. They therefore come away from this experience knowing - in a far deeper way than merely intellectual agreement - that God IS, and that there can be NO OTHER.  In other words, "anokhi" and "lo yihiyeh lekha."


            This distinction between the content of the dibbrot, and of revelation and Torah in general, and the experience of being at Har Sinai, is, I think, crucial to understanding the importance of parashat Yitro.  We are all familiar with the ambiguous attitude of the halakha towards singling out the asseret hadibbrot as being central to Judaism.  (At one time, the dibbrot were recited daily in the Temple, together with the shema, but this practice was abolished by the Sages. Standing for the asseret hadibbrot, a common custom, is in fact frowned upon by several halakhic authorities).  It is not at all clear that these commandments have a more central role to play in our understanding of Torah or our halakhic practice.  In any event, the Jews will be learning Torah for the next forty years.  Actually receiving the Torah - in their hands - is scheduled for not less than forty days after matan Torah, when Moshe will return with the tablets.  In terms of the history of the Jews in the desert, and by projection the history of the Jews in all times, the importance of this experience was in the direct connection to the word of God. The rabbinic dictum that all Jews, of all generations, were present at Har Sinai reflects this experience and definitely not the intellectual understanding of the content of this parasha.


            One might have argued that the experience created a people of Torah, that the Jews had acquired the Torah in this direct manner.  Rav Kahn is arguing that the experience created a people of God, that the connection and perception of God has been burned into the Jews by virtue of what they heard.  (Of course, even so it is still significant that the presence and existence of God among the Jews is through Torah, through the word of God, rather than the power of God alone which they had experienced at the crossing of the sea - see last week's shiur).  In any event, this is apparently a crucial link in the formation of the Jewish people.  To summarize the steps we have delineated in the last few weeks: first, the victory over Egypt and the exodus; secondly, the crossing of the sea; thirdly, the giving of the Torah.  We have tried to show that these are three stages in the creation of the Jewish relationship with God.


 Questions and further points:


1. Compare the argument between Moshe and God in this parasha with the parallel disagreement between God and Moshe that was explained in the shiur on Parashat Va-eira concerning how to lead the Jews to a true freedom.  This may well be a crucial factor in understanding the future history of the relationship between Moshe and the Jews in the coming parashot as well.


2. One difference between the pshat disagreement concerning warning the people and the talmudic disagreement on the number of preparation days is that God wins the first but defers to Moshe concerning the second.  Explain.


3. Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim 3), arguing with early Chassidut, declares that one should engage in "yir'at Hashem" before learning Torah, but not while actually learning. Learning is not that sort of religious experience.  Today's shiur sheds light on this point (and vice versa).


4.  The Ramban (20:16) claims that this verse ("Speak you to us and we shall hear, and let not God speak to us, lest we die") occurred BEFORE the giving of the Torah, and describes a different occurrence than the verse in Devarim (5:21-24), which took place AFTER matan Torah.  How should these two requests be understood, especially in light of today's shiur? (It would help to read the Ramban first.)