Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The communication between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is no doubt the climactic moment of the weekly portion of Yitro. With the completion of the transmission of the Ten Commandments, the Torah turns its attention to the subsequent reaction by the Jewish nation (Shemot 20:15-16):
“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. They said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.’”
The dramatic and desperate plea begets a strange response (ibid 17):
“Moses said to the people, "Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you (nasot), and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin."”
The answer appeared not to offer much solace (ibid 18):
“The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was.”
We can see from the above verse two seemingly discrete reasons offered by Moshe as to why the Jewish people need not fear God. The first is the “nasot” idea (the meaning of this term being vague), while the second is the notion of God’s awe being upon their faces. What ideas are being conveyed with these two reasons?
Various Midrashim stray far from the simple meaning of the verse. The word “nasot” is altered to “nes”, meaning miracle. What miracle is being referred to here? Simply put, the Divine communication between God and the Jewish people. Moshe was therefore telling the Jewish people God’s intention in speaking to them was to raise their stature among the nations of the world (Rashi takes this approach as well). The transcending of the natural order present at Sinai would serve as evidence to the world of the unique position held by the Jewish people. The second part of the response by Moshe focused on embarrassment (busha). Another result of the transmission would be a sense of busha felt by the people, as it is a positive trait for a person to constantly have a sense of feeling embarrassment (bayshan). A bayshan, as per the Midrash, is not quick to commit a sin. The fear of sin is strongly felt by the bayshan, and the Divine communication would have produced the same effect. A person lacking this trait is more likely to commit a sin.
How do these explanations fit the verse? Why would Moshe be relaying these concepts to the Jewish people?
Ramban offers a different explanation, where he attacks Rashi’s idea of a projection of greatness to the nations of the world. Rather, Ramban understands Moshe’s response as one unit. The objective of the communication was to solidify the belief in God required by the Jewish people. In speaking to them, the unquestionable belief in Him became clear, a part of their souls, never able to be removed. In recognizing this awesome truth, a fear would naturally arise in the entire nation, a part of us forever. Thus, Moshe’s response is referring to a process of sorts.
Clearly, Ramban is taking a completely different approach than both Rashi and the various Midrashim. What was bothering Ramban about the first explanation? Can we get a better understanding of the idea Ramban is conveying?
The initial explanation offered by the Midrashim is picking up on an important detail in the sequence of verses after the Divine communication. The Jewish people, in a sense, broke off the stream of communication, pleading with Moshe that it needed to cease. In fact, there are various interpretations which suggest the entire Torah was supposed to be given over directly to the Jewish people. After the initial set of commandments (how many is a subject of a different debate) was given, it would appear there was a premature end to the entire process. Moshe would now be the intermediary concerning all future commandments. If indeed the perception of the Jewish people was an abrupt ending to a much longer anticipated process, the question would be: what was the rationale for this entire episode? If the objective was for it to be a “complete” communication, then it was a failure. If not, then what was the point? Moshe was then addressing this question. The first reason offered in his response was the projection of greatness. While acknowledging the transmission may have been incomplete for the Jews, it served to demonstrate to the world the unique relationship God had and has with the Jewish people. An event of such a magnitude would result in a clear and undeniable recognition of the stature of the Jews, regardless of the specific content. There was also an internal benefit to this communication, the idea of busha. How would that emerge? Knowing that God communicated with them would produce a different type of clarity. As children, we are taught by our parents what is right and wrong. There is always an incident where a child does something wrong, but knows without a doubt it is the incorrect thing to do. When confronted, a sense of embarrassment overcomes the child, as the knowledge of what was correct was right in front of him. Choosing to ignore what someone knows without question is right results in a feeling of sheepishness. It is an important check on a person’s straying from the true path. The effect of this feeling serves as a powerful deterrent to committing sin. The Divine communication consecrated into the minds of the Jewish people the truth of God and the Torah, and would therefore be a permanent part of their psychological makeup in thwarting the attraction of sin.
Ramban challenges the overall assumption of the Midrashim. The impact of the communication was intrinsic to the growth of the Jewish people, and its supposed “interruption” was inconsequential. The objective, no matter the degree or quantity, was the philosophical conclusion of the reality of God. The overall concept here harks to a greater debate among the great Jewish medieval thinkers as to the path one should take in believing in God. According to some, the reality of God can be found through probing the natural world and seeing God’s infinite wisdom throughout. Thus, for example, an emphasis on areas such as physics would be of the utmost importance in achieving this end. Others, though, saw the event at Sinai, and its subsequent historical veracity, as the key to belief in God. The idea of a Divine Revelation to a mass of people, and their personal recollections passed down from generation to generation, serves as the bedrock for belief in God. Ramban appears to be focused on this path of belief. God speaking to the Jewish people was an undeniable reality to those at the event. The clear conclusion was belief in God. Once they internalized this belief, the natural result was a fear, an awe concerning the greatness of God in comparison to themselves. A true philosophical internalization of this ideal can only produce a resultant trepidation.
There is an important idea to be derived from both of the explanations. The receiving of the Torah and its commandments represented the transitional point in the Jewish nation’s role as servants of God. However, the act of communication between God and the Jewish nation has its own realm of importance. The interaction on display was something unique in the pantheon of history. Its impact affects us to this very day.