Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
This shiur is
dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
Mazal tov to Shlomit
and Chezi Ben-Michael of Efrat on the birth of a daughter!
she-tizku le-gadlah le-Torah, le-chuppa u-le-ma’asim tovim.
of the Revelation at Mount Sinai
in Moshe's Speech
lion's share of Moshe Rabbeinu's speech in Parashat Va'etchanan deals
with the revelation at Mount Sinai
and the lesson derived from it. The revelation at Sinai and the covenant that accompanied
it are certainly founding events in the history of the Jewish faith and nation,
and therefore the great length to which they are discussed is not surprising.
primary exegetical question that arises when we read Moshe's description of the
revelation and its significance pertains to the contribution that Moshe's
speech makes to the first description of the Sinaitic revelation in the book of
difference between the two accounts in the style of presentation is
self-evident. The account in chapter 20 of the book of Shemot is written
in an informative, if at times exalted, style. Scripture describes the event in
a narrative style, and deals neither with the lessons to be drawn from it nor
with its significance.
revelation at Sinai as described in Va'etchanan constitutes the building
blocks of a reproachful speech that is intended to teach the religious lesson
that may be derived from that event. Many expressions of rebuke, address,
calling, and the like, are found in our parasha. For example: "Only
take heed to yourself," "take therefore good heed to
yourselves," "for ask now," "know therefore this day,"
"see," "hear, O Israel," and the like.
explained last week, however, we must understand not only the purpose of repeating
the story of the revelation at Sinai at that time, but also the value and
novelty of that repetition for future generations. What is new here in Moshe
Rabbeinu's speech, what did he stress and emphasize, what did he add and what
did he omit, in relation to the original account in the book of Shemot,
that is meaningful for all generations?
entering the thick of things, let us make the following exegetical introductory
comment: Obviously, there are differences between Moshe's account and the way the
story is related in the book of Shemot. It is, however, incorrect to ask
why Moshe described the historical events differently than the way they
actually occurred, based on the assumption that the book of Shemot describes
what really happened, and Moshe's speech is a paraphrase or rewriting of that
story. For the description in the book of Shemot is also a story, and
not an archaeological record of events. That is to say, even the account in Shemot
must be read and interpreted as prose – as a story that has an objective.
In other words, we must ask the same questions regarding that account as well:
Why does it say such-and-such, and not something else, why is this detail
missing, and the like. We must not assume that one of the stories is more
precise or closer to historical reality than the other, for we have no access
to that reality as it was, but only to the two accounts of that reality. Our
discussion will deal then with the shaping of each story and the differences
between them, and not with historical facts, which fall into the category of
"that which is hidden" from us.
II. The Account of
the Revelation at Mount Sinai
and its Objective in Moshe's Speech in Parashat Va'etchanan
Many have already dealt with the complex structure of the description of
the revelation at Mount Sinai
in our parasha, which divides into three separate units (one is
advised to consult a Chumash):
first consider the particular message that is emphasized in each unit, and then
examine the common elements:
a. The obligation to remember God's direct revelation to Israel
and the way He uttered the Ten Commandments out of the fire (12-13).
Remembering God's direct revelation and command will teach the people to fear
God all their days, the primary meaning of which in this context is acceptance
of the yoke of the mitzvot.
admonition by way of negation to remember "the voice of God," and not
to remember any form, for they saw no manner of form. From here follows the
prohibition to make for God a manner of form and thus to break His covenant.
the monumental experience of the revelation, including both the very hearing of
God's voice and His appearance in fire, which despite the danger inherent in
it, the people survived and did not die: "Did ever people hear the voice
of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and lived… Out
of heaven He made you hear His voice, that He might instruct you. And upon
earth He showed you His great fire; and you did hear His words out of the midst
of the fire" (4:33, 36). This remembering is the basis for the belief in
the unity of God and the negation of all other gods, for surely no other nation
ever experienced a direct revelation of its god. Implicit in Moshe's words is
the argument put forward by the priests of the other nations before their
believers that their gods cannot reveal themselves to the masses, because they
would die, and therefore the religion must be passed on through the mediation
of the priesthood. The exclusive aspect of what occurred at Mount Sinai as a founding experience of faith
lies in the proof it offers regarding the possibility of a direct encounter
between God and man and nation. Thus, it follows that we alone have a living
God, a true God, and that the other nations merely heard a "rumor":
"To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord He is God"
Remembering the event as the basis for the covenant that God made with the
people of Israel
and with all of us today – the primary substance of which is the readiness of
the Jewish people to accept God's mitzvot in the future. "We shall
do and we shall hear": We shall do what we have already accepted to do and
we shall obey in the future whatever you command us. According to the words of
Moshe, the covenant is founded upon God's face to face revelation to the entire
mentioning the covenant, Moshe asks the people to remember that it was they who
had asked that God not speak with them further "lest they die,"
"and speak to us all that the Lord our God shall speak to you, and we will
hear it, and do it" (5:24). From here we see that the people accepted upon
themselves to relate to the prophecy of Moshe as the direct words of God. Thus,
in the continuation of his speech, Moshe commands Israel
with several new commandments, as the passage continues: "And these words,
which I command you this day, etc." (5:6). And the people are expected to
accept these commandments as if they were the actual words of God, for this is
what they themselves had proposed following the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Despite the fact that the message of
each unit of Moshe's speech is different, they fit together and complement each
other, and there is a common line of memory and meaning:
primary significance of the revelation at Mount Sinai according to Moshe's
speech in Parashat Va'etchanan lies in God's direct and face to face
revelation to all of Israel.
This is the foundation of the fear of God that is implanted in the soul of each
and every Jew for all generations. This is the basis for the monotheistic
faith, as is indicated by the passage that immediately follows the conclusion
of the description of the revelation at Mount
Sinai: "The Lord is our God, the Lord is
one" (5:4). This is also the basis for Israel's
obligation to fulfill the covenant that it had made with God at Sinai, that is,
to accept His mitzvot even if afterwards they come from the mouth of
Moshe. And this is also the source of the concern that the people will make an
image or form of what they had seen or what they imagine they had seen, and the
reason for the admonition to remember the voices, but not the sights.
Account of the Revelation at Mount
Sinai in Shemot
turn now to the description given by the Torah itself, from the mouth of God,
in the book of Shemot. Despite the commonly accepted understanding that
chapter 20 describes the direct revelation of God to the people and
transmission of the Ten Commandments, an examination of the description of the
events in chapters 20 and 24 reveals that such a thing is either not stated at
all, or at the very least concealed. We shall adduce several proofs:
1) First of all, the
most important point is missing then from the account. Nowhere anywhere in Parashat
Yitro is it stated that God revealed Himself face to face to the people, or
that He spoke to them in a direct manner. The heading to the Ten Commandments
is vague: "And God spoke all these words, saying" (20:1) – to whom
did He speak? To the people? To the elders? The Torah does not say, and this
stands out in stark contrast to the detailed emphasis in the book of Devarim:
"The Lord talked with you face to face in the mountain out of the midst of
the fire… saying, I am the Lord…" (5:4-6).
2) Second, the Torah
describes a conversation between Moshe and God in the presence of the people,
rather than God directly addressing the people: "And then the voice of the
shofar sounded louder and louder; Moshe speaks, and God answers him by a
voice" (19:19). More than this it does not say.
3) Third, immediately
following the conclusion of the Ten Commandments, there appears the people's
request of Moshe that he should speak to them. The Torah justifies that request
as follows: "And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the
lightnings, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking"
(20:15). And from this it follows: "But let not God speak with us, lest we
die" (20:16). The people experienced the intensity of the event, and asked
of Moshe that he speak to them, out of the fear that they themselves would be unable
to withstand God's revelation. But take note: This verse appears after the Ten
Commandments! Why does it not say: "And the people heard the words of the
Lord," or "And all the people heard the Lord as He spoke to
them," or the like? If we compare this description to our parasha,
we will immediately note the difference: "And you said, Behold, the Lord
our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice
out of the fire; we have seen this day that God does talk with man, and he
lives" (5:21) (as stated above, and not as the idolaters argue that their
god cannot reveal himself to his creations and that his creations cannot bear
his revelation). Here the matter is stated clearly and explicitly: The people
were deterred because they had experienced the revelation of God face to face
and they had heard the voice of God.
4) And fourth, the
covenant described in Shemot 24 consists primarily of a ceremony
involving the offering of sacrifices by the representatives of the people and
the writing of the book of the covenant. At the end of the ceremony there is
indeed a direct revelation, only it is not to all of Israel, but only to the
elders who serve as their representatives: "Then Moshe went up, and
Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the
God of Israel… And they beheld God…" (24:9-11). And in comparison to Devarim:
we have already mentioned earlier that the third unit dealing with the covenant
bases it on the experience of the direct revelation to the entire people:
"The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev… The Lord talked with
you face to face in the mountain out of the fire" (5:2-4). According to
the book of Shemot, the covenant is indeed based on face to face
revelation, but only to the people's representatives, and not to the people
themselves. From the positive, you can infer the negative, that is to say, this
implies that the people at large did not see.
manifest difference between Shemot and Devarim with respect to
the description of the event and especially the description of the revelation,
raises a great difficulty. Surely the entire religious lesson that is learned
from the revelation at Mount Sinai, according
to Moshe's speech, stems from the one-time, face to face revelation. If according
to the account related in Shemot, there was no such revelation, or at
the very least it was concealed, what then was the objective of the revelation
at Mount Sinai?
answer to this question is simple, and it follows from what is stated
explicitly at the beginning of the account, when God informs Moshe about what
is to happen. Immediately after the people of Israel accept God's proposal that
they enter into a covenant with Him, God informs Moshe of the next stage:
"And the Lord said to Moshe, Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud, that
the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you for ever" (19:9).
In light of the striking absence of any description of God's direct
revelation to the people, God's announcement to Moshe precisely defines the nature
and objective of the revelation:
revelation is that of God to Moshe in the presence of the people and not of God
to the people. According to the book of Devarim, the people constitute
the addressee of the revelation. God reveals Himself to them. According to the
book of Shemot, the people observe the revelation, the addressee of
which is Moshe Rabbeinu.
b) From this it follows
that the objective of the revelation was belief in Moshe rather than belief in God.
When the people will see God speaking to Moshe, they will know that indeed
Moshe is true and his Torah is true, and they will have to accept his prophecy
in the future. The essence of the revelation at Mount Sinai
according to the book of Shemot is expressed in the following verse:
"That the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you for
Significance of the Differences between the Accounts of the Revelation at Mount
Sinai in Shemot and Devarim
of what we have said thus far, we can explain most of the differences between
the book of Devarim and the book of Shemot regarding their
respective understandings of the revelation at Mount Sinai:
In the book of Devarim, faith in the unity of God requires proof,
and the revelation at Mount Sinai constitutes
that proof. In the book of Shemot, faith in the unity of God is assumed,
and the revelation comes to establish faith in the prophet of God.
On the other hand: In the book of Devarim, faith in Moshe is
self-evident, and through that faith and through his authority, Moshe teaches
the people and commands them about remembering the revelation at Mount
Sinai. In the book of Shemot, faith in Moshe requires proof,
and the revelation at Mount Sinai constitutes
Since the revelation, according to the book of Devarim, was
direct, the fear arises that the people will remember it and give form to what
they saw. In the book of Shemot, this concern does not arise, for the
people did not experience direct revelation, and thus there is no concern that
the memory of the event will lead to giving it form.
According to both books, the covenant is connected to the revelation,
but according to the book of Devarim the revelation is before the eyes
of the entire people, whereas according to the book of Shemot it is only
before the eyes of its representatives.
after we have described the differences, explained them, and offered an
understanding of each account, we must understand the reason for the two-fold
description of the event, and why in the book of Shemot it is described
in the one way and in the book of Devarim it is described in the other
to understand this matter, we must first of all understand the location and
function of each account. In the book of Shemot, the revelation at Mount
Sinai is in the present, occurring in close proximity to the events in the
recent past, namely, God's revelation through His Providence over the people of
Israel during the exodus
The nation that just now had experienced the exodus from Egypt
has no need of further proof regarding God's existence or His Providence over
the people. Surely after the splitting of the sea, we read: "And they
believed in the Lord, and in His servant Moshe" (14:31). While it is true
that it is also stated there that the people believed in Moshe, they believed
in him as one who acts in the name of God or performs wonders with His help,
but not as a prophet who delivers His word. The goal of the revelation at Mount
Sinai was belief in Moshe as a prophet who speaks the word of God,
and for that the people had to observe God's revelation to Moshe. Forty years
later, the exodus from Egypt
was no longer a given that was fixed in their consciousness, but merely a
distant memory. Thus, faith in the unity of God was also not a given, but a
memory that had to be turned into psychological reality. The purpose of the
speech in Devarim was to establish the faith for all generations even
when individuals and the community as a whole do not experience a revelation as
had occurred during the exodus from Egypt
or at Mount Sinai. From here it follows that
faith in the book of Devarim rests on the foundations of prophecy,
memory, and story, and not on unmediated experience.
faith in Moshe Rabbeinu, the situation is just the opposite. In the book of Shemot
faith in Moshe is not yet absolute, because among other things this phenomenon
was a great novelty in human civilization. Moshe is not a religious priest, or
a magician using special powers, but rather a prophet who proclaims the word of
God that had been revealed to him. This novelty required proof and
psychological rooting. However, for the next generation of the people of Israel,
this was self-evident. They were raised on belief in Moshe Rabbeinu and his
Torah. The belief in Moshe is the basis out of which grew the demand to believe
in the unity of God based on the revelation at Mount Sinai.
The belief in the unity of God is difficult to establish merely on the
testimony that God spoke with Moshe, for there is no qualitative difference
between this claim and the claims presented by the priests of all the other
religions, to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Therefore, the emphasis
in Moshe's account is upon God's direct revelation to the people. In the book
of Shemot this idea is hazy, for God is not interested in public
revelation becoming the fixed medium for delivering His word. On the contrary,
prophecy is the fixed and legitimate conduit for delivering the word of God,
and therefore God's unmediated revelation to the people is hidden in the story,
so as not to create an expectation or a standard that will not be fulfilled in
wider perspective, we are dealing here with two courses of faith. In the book
of Shemot faith begins with objective, external Divine revelation. God's
revelation becomes the basis for belief in a prophet. In the book of Devarim
there is no external revelation. There is a prophet, who demands faith, and
stirs up the memory. Belief in God grows out of memory, or out of the fear that
is implanted in the soul of every Jew for all generations, or out of faith in a
prophet. The source of faith is not an external, objective Divine event, but
rather inner experience, tradition, memory and prophecy: "The Lord made
not the covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are of us here
alive this day. The Lord talked with your face to face in the mountain out of
the midst of the fire" (5:3).
speaking, the second generation was not at Mount Sinai,
just as we were never there. Formally the covenant obligates us all. But what
is most important is the psychological-spiritual aspect: If a person wants to
remember something that he sees, he can photograph it. But a picture or a
statue is idolatry. Why? Because it turns something that is alive into something
that is dead; a living event becomes an object. We are called therefore to the
memory of voice. Voice is not given to external perpetuation, it has no
objective presence. Once it was, and now it is gone. But it is possible to
listen to a voice through memory, and through the fear of God that is impressed
in the heart of each and every one of us. The voice of God grows out of the
soul and out of the memory of anyone who wishes to listen to it.
another difference between the two accounts (which brings us back to R. Tzadok
and the Holy Jew mentioned in the previous shiur). In the book of Devarim,
the revelation at Mount Sinai turns from the
past to the present. In Moshe's description the "face to face" is not
what occurred in the past, providing in the present historical proof for faith,
but rather an experience that can be re-experienced in the present
existentially. Not a "pyrotechnic" reproduction, not thunder and
lightning, but rather Divine revelation to each individual. In my humble
opinion, this is also Onkelos's understanding when he translates: "These
words the Lord spoke to all your assembly in the mountain… with a great voice
which lo yasaf" – lo pasik - did not cease.
That is to say, that the echoes of that voice continue to be heard, not in
the acoustic expanse, but inside a person, from then until today. And today is
revelation at Mount Sinai and the exodus from Egypt in the book of Shemot
are the sources of faith, the origins of which are Divine and the movement of
which is from God to man. Its arena is that of objective history.
revelation at Mount Sinai in the book of Devarim is the source of faith,
the origin of which is human, and whose birth in the social sense is in the
prophecy of Moshe, man of God, and in the individual sense, in the heart and
memory of every Jew. In the book of Shemot, the arrow of faith is shot
from God to man. In the book of Devarim, man restores that arrow to the
Master of the universe.
V. Expressions of the Two
Perceptions in the Ten Commandments
well known, there are various differences between the Ten Commandments found in
Shemot and those found in Devarim. These differences have been
discussed at length by the Rishonim and the Acharonim. We wish to
add another point that may deepen our understanding of what has been explained
heart of the Ten Commandments stands without a doubt the mitzva of
Shabbat. Quantitatively, this mitzva takes the most space. As for its
location, it is found in the middle of the Ten Commandments, and ferries us
from the commandments between man and God to those between man and his fellow.
Qualitatively, it is the mitzva, and perhaps the only mitzva
in the list – in the precise sense of the term. The first negative precepts of
the Ten Commandments are positive and negative expressions of the faith and the
covenant, and from this perspective they are self-evident. The latter negative
precepts among the Ten Commandments are necessary conditions for the existence
of civilized society, and indeed for the most part they are agreed upon and
accepted by most human societies. Shabbat is a novelty, a mitzva,
because it infers from faith and morality an obligation that is cast upon life
itself, and changes and influences it in practice. In other words, here
religious belief turns into a principle of conduct and a cause for a
refashioning of time.
the most important difference between the two lists of the Ten Commandments
relates to the explanation given for the mitzva of Shabbat. The
Shabbat of the book of Shemot serves as a reminder of the Shabbat of
Creation, and thus it is an expression of thanksgiving of all of creation. The
Shabbat of the book of Devarim is a social obligation the purpose of
which is the establishment of an egalitarian day of rest, the meaning of which
is the freedom of man, owners, and slaves from bondage to work and master.
objective of Shabbat in the book of Shemot is faith in God,
Creator of the world. The objective of Shabbat in the book of Devarim is
man and society.
fundamental Shabbat of the book of Shemot is that which was established
by God at the time of Creation. We are called to remember it and join to it,
but it stands on its own, it is part of the essence of time, whether we join it
or, God forbid, not.
Shabbat of Devarim depends upon man and society. It is not a fact
that must be remembered, but rather a mission or an obligation that must be
kept: "Keep the sabbath day." If we do not keep it, there will be no
rest, no equality, no freedom for all men, and then there will also be no
Shabbat. The Shabbat's home is in man.
to the book of Shemot, the thirty-nine forbidden labors constitute an
archetypal set of labors that symbolize Divine creation, and through abstention
from such labors, the rest on Shabbat from all labor.
to the book of Devarim, the thirty-nine forbidden labors are a list of
common labors in the world of man, the purpose of refraining from which is the
fashioning of Shabbat as a day of rest on the real human level.
then that the perception that establishes the nature of the account and the
memory of the revelation at Mount Sinai, also establishes the various meanings
given in the two lists of the Ten Commandments to the mitzva of Shabbat.
 The interested
reader can review some of the shi'urim catalogued in the archives of the
Virtual Beit Midrash, e.g., the shi'ur of Rav Amnon Bazak and
that of Rav Mordechai Sabbato.
 For joining the
word "leimor," "saying" to verse 4, see the
commentators, especially the Ibn Ezra.
 There are those
who have explained that the vision that the elders saw on the mountain was the
source for the fashioning of the Golden Calf, following the explanation of R.
Yehuda Ha-Levi and the Zohar. This, however, is not the forum to discuss
the issue at greater length.
 These two
understandings regarding Shabbat can explain many of the controversies
found in Tractate Shabbat. For example, the question of the source of
the thirty-nine forbidden labors, the dispute between R. Eliezer and the Sages
regarding the separation of labors, and especially the series of disputes
between R. Yehuda and R. Shimon regarding the basic concept of forbidden labor
which are fundamental to all of Shabbat law.
(Translated by David