Do We Really Need to be Warned Again?
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
We are all aware that the Torah never wastes words. Every conversation that takes place between God and man, as recorded in the Torah, is there to teach us an idea, offer a glimpse into the chachma of the Creator of the universe. At times, we come across a verse or two that seems to be a clear violation of this truism, such as a redundancy. However, it is rarer when man points out to God, in a direct manner, that He is “repeating” Himself. In Parshas Yisro, immediately prior to the giving of the Torah, we see a conversation between God and Moshe that at first glance has us thinking God is restating the same command, almost ignoring the apparent repetition pointed out by Moshe.
God commanded Moshe three days prior to the giving of the Torah to ensure Bnai Yisrael do not try and climb Har Sinai (Shemos 19:12):
“And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.”
Upon completion of the three days, Moshe brings forward the Jewish people, ready to accept the Torah. God’s first words to Moshe are as follows (ibid 21-22):
“The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break to see the Lord, and many of them will fall. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them.”
This sounds pretty familiar, and Moshe picks up on the perceived redundancy (ibid 23):
“And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.”
When faced with this challenge from Moshe, God responds with what seems like a repeat of verse 21-22:
“The Lord said to him, "Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them.”
This back and forth seems peculiar, based on the simple translation. Why was God warning the Jews again? And how does the final response by God (which would be warning number three) somehow resolve the issue?
Rashi’s explanation adds more fuel to the fire. He first explains that God’s rationale for having Moshe warn the Jews again was based on their desire to come closer to the mountain (ibid 21):
“lest they break: their position [i.e., their ranks] because of their longing for God, to see [Him], and they move too close to the side of the mountain.”
Moshe then responds, according to Rashi, in an incredulous manner:
“I do not have to warn them because today they have already been warned for three days, and they cannot ascend [the mountain] since they have no permission.”
What does Moshe mean in dismissing God’s concern? We are talking about the Creator, the Melech Elyon – and Moshe responds that there is no need to heed His words?
Putting this aside, God answers as follows:
“And warn them a second time. We admonish a person before the act [he is to perform], and we admonish him again at the time of the act [when it is to be performed.”
What is this additional message being taught by God?
Rashbam disagrees with Rashi’s interpretation. Rather than Moshe contesting God’s request, Moshe was in fact questioning the change in God’s request. What change is he referring to? In verse 21, God is concerned that the Jews will want to “see” Him. Moshe interprets this to mean that God is extending the prohibition to even looking at the mountain at the time of the giving of the Torah. This, according to Rashbam, seemed to be a different command, leading to Moshe’s question. God responds then by removing the word “see” from the command.
While Rashbam’s position is less inflammatory than Rashi’s, it still requires some type of explanation. God does not seem to be adding anything new in the final verse; how was Moshe satisfied with this answer?
Rashi’s first explanation is in fact the key to understanding the back and forth between God and Moshe. God tells Moshe that Bnai Yisrael’s desire to “see” God would lead them too close to the mountain. What idea is God conveying here? The idea of setting a boundary limiting Bnai Yisrael’s ascent of Har Sinai was actually the conveyance of an extremely important concept. The experience of Har Sinai was going to be a gateway to knowledge of God unheard of up to this point. It was therefore imperative that there was a recognition of the inherent limitation man has in his ability to understand God; this was signified in the border delineated at Har Sinai. This command, along with the ideas behind it, was presented by Moshe to the Jewish people three days before Har Sinai. It would seem that Bnai Yisrael comprehended and internalized this important dictum. God was then bringing to light a supplementary potential concern, and this is where the concept of an additional “admonishment” comes into the picture. This other concern was about the ability of Bnai Yisrael to keep their emotions in line at the time of the giving of the Torah. It is one thing to be warned prior to the event. However, as this was a unique phenomenon, it is possible the Jewish people would overestimate their psychological state of mind. They would come face-to-face with tremendous emotional “surges”, and this could lead them to cross the boundary. This seemed to be the basis for God’s warning. Why, then, was Moshe so dismissive?
Moshe was not questioning the need to review the warning to the Jewish people. Many times, a review of the law is a simple and efficient method to ensure adherence at the time of its application. Moshe understood the potential emotional upheaval. However, he also believed he had prepared the nation properly, both intellectually and psychologically. In other words, the Jewish people at that very moment were no different than they were the moment they internalized the command. They were prepared as per God’s command; thus, any review would be superfluous. This bears out in Moshe’s contention that they would not violate the border as they did not have permission to do so. The command was reality to them, and they would act accordingly. God responds with what seems to be the same warning. It is possible He was sending a message to Moshe. No doubt, the people were prepared as much as they could have been. There was no way, though, to anticipate the emotional upheaval that would occur at the time of Har Sinai. A wellspring of emotions would explode to the surface, something that no person, due to his limited knowledge of the self, could perceive. Another warning, which in fact was a qualitatively different admonishment due to the part of man it was targeting, was needed here. Thus, God responds to Moshe with the message that this situation was so unique, there was no way the Jewish people could be completely prepared.
Rashbam sees this conversation differently. As we mentioned above, the main concept that emerges from the restrictions regarding ascending Har Sinai is man’s knowledge of his limitations regarding understanding God. Therefore, when Moshe saw the additional concern of “seeing” the mountain come into the picture, he saw the entire nature of the commandment change. If the Jews were not even allowed to look at Har Sinai, then this was not just a lesson in the relationship between God and man. God was sending a message that Bnai Yisrael could not even begin to relate to God; at Har Sinai, the Jews would be passive recipients of the ideas concerning the Torah. Moshe now asks God as to the nature of this change and the different approach to be taken. God responds with a minor change – He says that He wants to warn them again about trying to “ascend to the Lord”. This subtle change from the concern about them “seeing” Him actually reflects an important idea. In the Torah, the terms “liros” has two connotations. One is literally to see. The other refers to inquiry, the use of the mind to acquire new ideas. In this case, God was telling Moshe that He was referring to the inquiry idea of “liros”. God was reinforcing the concept of the limitation Bnai Yisrael must recognize at this moment in time. They were to be exposed to a world of ideas and knowledge in a manner unlike any other in history. This alone presaged the need to ensure there was no overestimation of the self.