Sinai: “Approaching” G-d through Intelligence - Never Knowing Him


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I read your quote from the Rambam about how the events that occurred at Sinai are one of the “secrets of the torah” (it being unclear whether G-d spoke all 10, or just the first 2 commandments.) This seems strange to me. If we think of the revelation at Sinai as the event that demonstrates incontrovertibly that G-d revealed Himself to the people, that is dependent on 2 factors: 1) mass revelation, i.e., that many people witnessed the event, and 2) simple, rather than complex information so that there is no mistake that G-d was revealing Himself. This was achieved by the lightning, thunder, fire, and voice.

But why wouldn't it be clear what events actually transpired? Wouldn't that undermine the absolute proof that the event occurred? If we can't figure out exactly what happened, doesn't that leave a hole? Once we're not even
sure what happened, isn't that a slippery slope?

The answer can be that the events are clear that all the people believed that G-d revealed himself. Even though it's not clear exactly what happened. Despite this, I find it strange that the event upon which we base all our conviction is an ambiguous event.



Mesora: You suggest the word “secret” conveys that we are unsure of what transpired at Sinai. Maimonides’ statement that this is “one of the secrets of the law” does not mean what transpired on Sinai is not known. Just the opposite is true. A “secret” means that something very definite and clear exists, albeit in a discreet form. One may only refer to some knowledge as a “secret”, if he in fact knows that secret. That means the knowledge was definitely known by Maimonides, and those from whom he received his knowledge. Therefore, “secret” only means that it is safeguarded by the Rabbis, or unapproachable by most individuals lacking the required intellectual training to discover that secret.


What is an “event”?  “Event” refers to an exclusive set of matters, which have transpired at a given time, or duration. These matters are absolute, and unchangeable. We know there can be but one true depiction for any given event in history. The question is whether we possess the true account. As you said, masses and simple phenomena validate an event as truth. At Sinai, there was and is no ambiguity about which events transpired, only regarding which commands the nation heard, in contrast to Moses. Moses recalls the events to the people in Deuteronomy. Had there been any ambiguity about events, the Jews would not accept and transmit Moses’ depiction exclusively. It is clear, the people and Moses were in unanimous agreement as to which events transpired.


What were some significant features of that event? Moses - and certainly everyone else - was not able to approach G-d directly, thus, the inclusion of clouds and “darkness”. G-d also told Moses, “Man cannot know Me while alive”. Sinai’s elements were not accidental, but orchestrated by G-d to teach man of his inability to perceive G-d, or know Him in any positive fashion. We are flesh, with limited intelligence. This limit is conveyed by G-d’s creation of “darkness, cloud and thick cloud” which accompanied the event of Sinai. (See Deut. 4:11) It was essential to G-d’s revelation, that man be made aware that his limited intelligence is a veil between him and G-d. Man did not perceive G-d Himself, as Moses pointed out to the Jews so many times.


I do not feel we ever stated this in so many words, that man cannot perceive G-d, and that he did not perceive G-d at Sinai. G-d is not physical, while all man’s perceptions are only of physical matters. Therefore, man cannot truly perceive G-d. Therefore, how was Sinai a proof of G-d’s existence, if we did not perceive Him? The answer is that although we did not perceive G-d, we did perceive proof of His existence, and His complete control of the universe. Only the One who created and controls the physical world could create such an event as Sinai.


Maimonides teaches, “…what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites”, also, “…the people did not understand the voice in the same degree as Moses did”. This must be so. Revelation of G-d means that man was directed by G-d’s “physical event”, to strive and perceive something metaphysical, to acquire new knowledge. As such, this event was not limited to sensory perception alone, but afforded those on their own, respective levels of intelligent proficiency to apprehend new truths. As Moses surpassed all Jews in intelligence, his apprehension also surpassed theirs. Moses perceived something greater than the Jews. His understanding of G-d must be on a greater level. Everyone including Moses perceived the physical phenomena identically. Moses’ eyes and ears are no better than the Jews’. Therefore, Moses excelled over others in the realm of intellectual apprehension.


This is one of the central lessons of Sinai, almost as vital as the proof of G-d: our knowledge of G-d is in proportion to our intelligence:


Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XXXII:

“As to the revelation on Mount Sinai, all saw the great fire, and heard the fearful thunderings, that caused such an extraordinary terror; but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities. Therefore it is said," Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu." Moses rose to the highest degree of prophecy, according to the words," And Moses alone shall come near the Lord." Aaron was below him, Nadab and Abihu below Aaron, and the seventy elders below Nadab and Abihu, and the rest below the latter, each one according to his degree of perfection. Similarly our Sages wrote: Moses had his own place and Aaron his own.”



Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter XXXIII, opening words:

“It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments”.



We derive this important lesson: Sinai did not only prove G-d’s existence, but it taught mankind that ours is not to know G-d, (which is impossible) but only that we may “approach” Him. And in our approaching G-d, our degree of knowledge determines our metaphysical proximity to greater truths. The varying levels of ascension of Moses, Joshua, Nadab, Abihu and the elders taught this very lesson, that we only “approach” G-d, never knowing Him. The truths arrived at by Moses are of a far higher degree of clarity than what others apprehended.


We already said that our perception is limited to physical matters alone. G-d is not physical, and therefore we can never perceive Him. However, what we can do is approach Him, and this is achieved only through advancing our intelligence and knowledge. Torah study is the greatest command for this very reason, that knowledge of G-d is our priority.


This idea that we may only “approach” G-d, never comprehending His essence, and that such an approach is based only on intelligence and perfection (applied intelligence) and no other consideration, is displayed by the command G-d gave the Jews not to ascend Mount Sinai. Exodus 19:12: “Set boundaries around the mountain saying, “Be ye careful, ascending the mountain or touching its edges, anyone touching the mountain will be certainly killed.”  Why such a severe punishment? Why would people wish to ascend? The answer is obvious: the Jews might be led to feel that geographical proximity exists in connection with G-d. But this is heresy, as this is predicated on the fallacy that G-d has location, that He is physical in some way. (Based on this idea, I personally feel those who insert “kapituls” or letters into the Western Wall for G-d’s response, are failing to understand G-d.) The fact that G-d warned the Jews from touching Mount Sinai displays the human proclivity towards doing so. Again, we are made aware of the idea that an approach to G-d can only be through our advance in intelligence, and in applying this intelligence to life, thereby perfecting ourselves. For knowledge, which does not eventuate in subsequent employment, surely falls short of a complete conviction in that knowledge. True conviction is the goal we must strive for in our studies. And the barometer of complete conviction in our ideas - is action.


As a final question, why were both cloud and darkness incorporated into revelation at Sinai? Couldn’t either one teach the lesson? And how does the meteorological phenomena work with the levels of human ascent on the mountain, that both categories were required? Write in with your ideas.