By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
August 4, 2001
IN HIS REVIEW OF THE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED from the past, Moshe repeats the
Aseret HaDibrot, at which time the Children of Israel heard the voice of
Hashem themselves. Then he says:
These words Hashem spoke to all your assembly on the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, a great voice, and He did not continue (V'LO YASAF); and He wrote them upon two tablets of stone and He gave them to me.
And it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain burned with fire, that all the heads of your tribes and your elders came near to me. And they said, "Behold, Hashem, our G-d has shown us His glory and His greatness, and His voice have we heard from the midst of the fire; this day we have seen that G-d speaks with man, and he lives. And now, why should we die? for this great fire will consume us; if we continue (YOSFIM) to hear the voice of Hashem, our G-d again, we will die. For, which flesh is there who has heard the voice of the living G-d speaking from the midst of the fire as we have, and lived? You approach, and hear all that Hashem, our G-d will say; and you (AT) will speak to us all that Hashem, our G-d will speak to you, and we will listen and we will do."
And Hashem heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and Hashem said to me, "I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they did well in all that they have said. Would that there were such a heart in them to fear Me and keep all My commandments, all the days, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever. Go, say to them, 'Return you to your tents'" (Devarim 5:19-27).
SO, MOSHE IS INSTRUCTED to be the mediator, bringing Hashem's teachings to the Children of Israel. As R. Yehudah Halevi (c. 1075-1141) teaches in the Kuzari (I:87-91), it was essential for the people to have been granted the personal experience of prophecy so as to demonstrate that prophecy is achievable; and consequently, they would believe Moshe when he teaches all the mitzvot as prophecies in the name of Hashem.
IT IS COMMENDABLE that they repeatedly call Hashem "our G-d," even while recognizing their own limitations in their connection to Him. Such self-knowledge is essential for spiritual development. Still, if they have seen that they can survive such an overwhelming experience, why are they nonetheless afraid to die?
TWO RATHER DIFFERENT APPROACHES to this passage can be found in the Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv, 1817-1893) and the
Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877).
THE NETZIV EXPLAINS that, in order to receive prophecy, the people required a diminution of their physical faculties by engendering fear in them through external effects:
the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, a great voice.
BUT, THEY ADMIT THAT, IF THEY CONTINUE (YOSFIM) to witness these phenomena, they will eventually become accustomed to them and then the fear will subside and they will be consumed, since the absence of fear renders them unsuited to be exposed to nevua'h. Therefore, they turn to Moshe, who has achieved the requisite physical detachment. They ask him to intercede before Hashem with the facility of a mother who mediates between her children and their father; therefore, they use the feminine pronoun AT for Moshe. Prophecy will not return (V'LO YASAF) because they are afraid, and Hashem accepts their admission because He perceives their sincerity. Hence, they can return to natural living, free of prophecy, and follow Hashem's dictates through the agency of Moshe.
THE NETZIV ASSERTS, that if the people had been prepared for a life of prophecy to continue, they would have remained as prophets. The Malbim, on the other hand, argues that, since Hashem's teaching is perfect and immutable, the Revelation of the Written Torah was always intended as a singular event, and the people's prophecy would not reoccur (V'LO YASAF). Bnai Yisrael understand that this is Hashem's Will, and if they were to again (YOSFIM) hear His Voice they would be destroyed, since it would not serve a purpose. But, the Written Torah they have received must, of necessity, be actualized through the Oral Torah, and for that they depend on Moshe. From the outset, Moshe's role was indispensable. Like the partnership of a husband and wife, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are interdependent, so the feminine pronoun AT is used to delineate Moshe's function. From now on, the people will rely upon Moshe and trust him to teach them Hashem's Word.
KLI YAKAR (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Lunshitz, 1550-1619) adds that the Children of Israel were not prepared to weaken their physical aspect, as Moshe had done, in order to receive prophecy. Therefore, they recoiled in awe and did not wish to continue (YOSFIM). Moshe was disappointed with them for refusing to extend the prophecy experience (V'LO YASAF) and rise to the challenge of attaching themselves to Hashem in love. But Hashem, Who knew the people were sincere, taught Moshe that it is better that they at least serve from awe, for that will lead them to obedience:
Would that there were such a heart in them to fear Me and keep all My commandments, all the days, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever.
SERVICE OF HASHEM BASED ON AWE can always progress to service based on love. The transmission of Torah depends on the reality of prophecy, the reliance upon Moshe and the Sages, and the necessary bond between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. But, far more than the transfer of information, Torah unites the self with the divine. This requires self-knowledge, devotion to Hashem and the readiness to grow.