And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.
In this famously incomprehensible verse that speaks of sighting sound, Rashi reminds us of the famous midrash known to our Yeshiva schoolchildren.
the voices: They saw what was audible, which is impossible to see elsewhere. - [from Mechilta d'Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai]
A plain ole miracle; we must wonder for what purpose? To Rashi, we shall return - but first let us analyze Bnei Yisrael response to this moment
They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die."
The Rishonim argue - whether this response comes following the aseres hadibros or prior. Either way, for Bnei Yisrael, something about God-Speech is too much.
Moshe comforts his people
But Moshe said to the people, "Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin."
We seek to understand the dialogue:
First, a simple survey of non-Rashi approaches to the notion of seeing [רואים] the kolos
1. Rashbam - it refers to the hail- stones as it says earlier [9:28] The sounds of Elokim and hail
2. Rabbeinu Bechayei ... for the sound came amidst the fire as it says [Tehillim 29] the voice of Hashem pierces the blazes of fire and they saw the fire ... thus it says they saw the voices
3. Chizkuni - they observed the [reality of the] voices; i.e. the word ra'ah applies to that which can be deduced/intuited, even if it can not be seen. [as in the nation saw that Moshe tarried in descending the mountain - cf. Shemos 32:1]
4. Seforno - they reflected regarding the voices that they would not be able to tolerate them ... and did not want to die
5. Rosh - they benfited/enjoyed the voices as in v'ra'ah es ervasah ... which implies enjoy and not simply seeing
All of these p'shat oriented approaches still leave us knocking at the door of depth - for we must still ponder why this moment is necessary at all.
We digress for but a moment to the akeidas yitzchak story. Hashem commands Avraham [Bereishi, 22:2]
And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you."
A few verses later the text relates:
On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.
Avraham identifies the mountain even as the text never relates that Hashem told Avraham which mountain it shall be! It is a famous question that our classical meforshim deal with [cf. Rashi, Ramban ibid].
With Rav Kook's stirring words [Olas Reiyah,pp87-88], we return full circle:
the wondrous events that took place for the holy father during these 3 days of walking can not possibly be explained, fathomed or expressed - they reside in the hidden consciousness of the Holy of Holies. That which occurred on the 3rd day - that a holy light appeared- in the place that speech should have designated "the mountain that I shall tell you" - there instead came a prophetic vision! For the soul rose to an elevated place level where all the perceptions merge - speech and sight like all other spiritual phenomena then reside in the same domain. The speech therefore was characterized in the form of vision and that holy sight so penetrated the deepest place of his holy soul ... of the powerful father that he felt so deeply connected with the place that it was impossible to designate with some external sign .. rather it was the place so specially designated to concentrate the entire holiness of his life
Avraham never hears God "speak out" the mountain - for at a certain place, speech and sight merge; that is the deepest place of the neshama where one can intuit/envision with utter clarity what the dibbur of Hashem is. In Kotzker terminology, vision is external and speech comes from within. The merging of the two means that one can see deeply into the will of God.
Rav Kook goes further. It is not a matter of seeing deeper; rather the neshama that achieves utter synchronicity with the d'var Hashem has no need for external manifestations. For Avraham at the apex of his spirituality - he saw what God's inner desire, [i.e. his speech] was to the point that there were no other options. It was as if the mountain unquestionably called out to him alone.
That utter clarity point which melds speech and vision is a scary place to be at - for it is a moment without options - and free-willed Man always wants another way out. Perhaps it was this very fear that animates Bnei Yisrael - for too much God- Speech means utter clarity and too few options. [We must leave Moshe's response for a different day]
And for us: we who seek to grow in our Divine service - shall we also fear? Certainly!
But let us take comfort in the knowledge that concomitant to the fear is the beautiful feeling of seeing/sensing and indeed basking in the Divine words of pride and nachas that surely accompany every upward movement; words that touch our neshama and speak to us in the deepest places - that we can surely feel and may someday even see.