Moshe elicits a firm commitment from the
people of Israel:
And Moshe wrote all of Hashem’s words (KOL DIVREI HASHEM). And he arose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the young men of the Children of Israel, and they offered up elevation-offerings, and they sacrificed bulls as peace- offerings to Hashem. And Moshe took half of the blood and put it into large bowls, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant (SEFER HA’BRIT) and read it in earshot of the people. And they said, “All that Hashem has said (KOL ASHER DIBBER HASHEM) we will do and we will listen.” And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people, and he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that Hashem has made with you regarding all these words (KOL HA’DEVARIM HA’ELEH)” (Shemot 24:3-8).
How are we to understand these events? In the view of Rashi, the above- entioned occurred before the Revelation of the Decalogue and the laws (20:1-23:19): the first part on the fourth of Sivan, and from And he arose early in the morning (24:4), on the fifth of Sivan.
Ibn Ezra and Ramban, on the other hand, say that these events occurred immediately after the Revelation, in accordance with the way they are presented in the text.
On the subject of the Book of the Covenant (SEFER HA’BRIT) that Moshe reads, the Midrash (Mechilta Yitro Bachodesh, 3) presents three views: “R. Yose ben R. Yehuda says, from the beginning of Bereishit until here.”
This view is adopted by Rashi on our verses. “Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi] says, the commandments which Adam was commanded, and the commandments which the sons of Noach were commanded and the commandments which [the Israelites] were commanded in Egypt and at Marah, and all the other commandments.”
This includes the mitzvot that were originally taught to all mankind and those which were given to the Israelites exclusively, namely the laws of Pesach (Shemot, chapter 12) and the laws taught at Marah (15:25; see Sanhedrin 56b which says that they received the laws of Shabbat, honoring parents and civil laws), as well as all the mitzvot that would ultimately be written in the Torah.
“R. Yishmael says, … At the end of the matter what does it say? These are the statutes and the laws and the teachings (Vayikra 26:46). They said, ‘We accept this upon ourselves.’ When [Moshe] saw that they accepted it upon themselves he took the blood and sprinkled it on them, as it says, And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people. He said to them, ‘Behold you are tied, looped and held fast. Come tomorrow and accept upon yourselves all the commandments.’”
R. Yishmael holds that the Children of Israel first committed themselves to obey whatever Hashem would command, and accepted the consequences as delineated in the admonitions at the end of Vayikra (25:1-26:46); after they were so bound, Moshe undertook to teach them the mitzvot.
Another issue is raised by Meshech Chochma (R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926). The passage begins with Moshe communicating all of Hashem’s words and all the laws (KOL DIVREI HASHEM V’ET KOL HA’MISHPATIM).
Then the people respond with, “All the words (KOL HA’DEVARIM) which Hashem has spoken shall we do”; they do not refer to the laws (MISHPATIM). Moshe then writes all of Hashem’s words (KOL DIVREI HASHEM).
Finally, the Children of Israel declare, “All that Hashem has said (KOL ASHER DIBBER HASHEM) we will do and we will listen” and Moshe brings them into the covenant that Hashem has made with you regarding all these words (KOL HA’DEVARIM HA’ELEH).”
Why, asks Meshech Chochma, does the passage fluctuate between these different terms for Hashem’s commands?
All of humanity (the “children of Noach”)
must establish legal systems and courts of law in order to keep the peace
(Sanhedrin 56b; Rambam, “Laws of Kings” 9:1,14). Because these systems benefit
and protect all members of society, it is agreed that the courts can compel
individuals to comply. This is not so, however, of “religious laws”; compliance
or non-compliance has no effect upon the society at large, and so they remain a
personal matter, as R. Meir Simcha writes:
The Torah creates a different relationship
between the members of Israelite society. Israel’s commitment at first was only
to the words (HA’DEVARIM) – the regulations of an ordered society; they did not
yet commit themselves to the religious laws (MISHPATIM). But when Moshe
sprinkled the blood on the people he brought them into the covenant, as R.
Yishmael said in the Mechilta above:
By means of this covenant they committed themselves as a society: “All that Hashem has said (KOL ASHER DIBBER HASHEM) we will do and we will listen”; they will obey both the words and the laws. The effect of the covenant is that, in all mitzvot, “All of Israel are cosigners for each other” (Shavuot 39a, and elsewhere). Because Israel is a united spiritual community, if one person sins he affects the entire community: he fosters a withdrawal of Hashem’s Presence and Providence from the society. This explains why the court can coerce individuals to comply with the commandments of Hashem. Meshech Chochma concludes with words we should all take to heart: “One who transgresses the command of Hashem has created a barrier between himself and his fellow-man, since he harms the collective.”