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God's Voice Speaking from Amidst the Fire

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT VAETCHANAN

God's Voice Speaking from Amidst the Fire

By Rav Amnon Bazak

 

A. THREE DESCRIPTIONS WITHIN A SINGLE PARASHA

In our parasha, we read no less than three descriptions of the Revelation at Sinai. Let us review them and highlight that which is common to them.

a) Chapter 4 (9-13):

"Only beware and guard your souls well lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest they be removed from your heart, all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children: the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev, when God told me: 'Gather to Me the nation, that I may make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the land, and that they may teach them to their children.' And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain was burning with FIRE, to the heart of the heavens – darkness and cloud and fog. And the Lord your God spoke from amidst the FIRE, THE SOUND (lit. 'voice') of words you heard, but you saw no form, only a VOICE."

b) Later on in the same chapter (verses 32-36), we find another description of Mount Sinai:

"For ask now of the early days that came before you, from the day when God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heaven until the other: has such a great thing as this ever been, or has such a thing ever been heard? Have people ever heard of the VOICE of God speaking from amidst a FIRE, as you have heard, and live… You have been shown, to know, that God is the Lord; there is none other beside Him. From the heavens He made HIS VOICE heard to you, to instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great FIRE, and you heard His words from amidst the FIRE."

c) In the next chapter (5:4-5; 19-23), we find yet another description [1]:

"Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain, from amidst the FIRE. I stood between God and you at that time, to tell you God's word, for you were afraid of the FIRE and you did not ascend the mountain, saying… And it was, when you heard the voice from amidst the darkness, and the mountain was burning with fire, that you came close to me – all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. And you said, 'Indeed, God our Lord has shown us His glory and His greatness, and HIS VOICE we have heard from amidst the FIRE; this day we have seen that God speaks to man, and he lives. And now, why shall we die – for this great FIRE will consume us; if we continue to hear the VOICE of the Lord our God we shall die. For who, of all flesh, can hear the VOICE of the living God speaking from amidst fire, as we have, and live? You draw close, and hear all that God our Lord tells you, and you shall tell us all the God our Lord has told you, and we shall hear, and we shall do.'"

In all three descriptions, we are struck by the centrality of God's VOICE speaking from amidst the FIRE. Indeed, the voice and the fire are also central to the description of the Revelation [2] as described in Sefer Shemot (19:18-19):

"And Mount Sinai was all in smoke because God had descended upon it in FIRE, and its smoke rose up like the smoke of a furnace, and the mountain quaked greatly. And the sound of the shofar grew exceedingly strong; Moshe spoke and God answered him WITH A VOICE."

Special emphasis is given throughout Sefer Devarim to the fire on this occasion. [3] But concerning our parasha we must ask, why does the Torah repeat this description three times within two chapters?

B. DIVISION OF THESE DESCRIPTIONS IN RELATION TO MOSHE'S SPEECHES

The need for the repetition turns out to be a result of the different lessons to be learned from the Revelation at Sinai. Firstly, we must take note of the fact that our parasha includes within it a transition between two of the four parts of Sefer Devarim – Moshe's three lengthy speeches and the description of how he takes leave of the nation. The three speeches are divided by means of references to Moshe in the third person, and these breaks are an excellent tool for marking the different sections. The three speeches are defined as follows:

i. Chapters 1-4: first speech, called the "historical speech" (concluding with the section in chapter 4: 41-49);

ii. Chapters 5-26: the "speech of the mitzvot" (concluding with the section in chapter 27:1-10);

iii. Chapters 27-30: speeches of the covenant.

We must address the fact that the first two descriptions of the Revelation are both part of Moshe's first speech, while the third description falls into the speech of the mitzvot. It is therefore natural that the different location of each description is also related to the character of the framework within which it appears.

Let us now examine each description individually.

C. "FOR YOU SAW NO IMAGE"

The first description (like the second) is located in the "historical" speech. This speech seeks to point out various lessons that Bnei Yisrael should learn from the events that happened to them – particularly regarding their relationship with God. Chapter 4 is a sort of summary, mostly comprised of clear and practical guidance, including repeated exhortations to observe the mitzvot. [4]

We learn some fundamental principles here for our understanding of God. One such principle is the negation of the embodiment of God, and this is the basis for the description of the Revelation at Sinai within this framework. The importance of the Revelation, in the context of this principle, is that it was the first encounter between Bnei Yisrael and God, and the role of the fire and the voice was to express the fact that they saw no image: "God spoke to you from amidst THE FIRE, the SOUND (lit: 'voice') of words you heard, but you saw no image, only a VOICE."

The obligation of remembering the Revelation at Sinai is meant to illustrate the message concerning embodiment:

"Only beware and guard your soul well lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life; and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children – the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev… and you shall guard your souls well, FOR YOU SAW NO IMAGE on the day when God spoke to you at Chorev from amidst the fire. Let you become corrupt and make for yourselves a carved idol, the likeness of any form, the shape of a male or female…."

Bnei Yisrael are obligated to remember how, on that great day of fire and noise, they saw no image, likeness or form. The prohibition against making any carved idol or image is accompanied, at the end of this section, with the warning: "For the Lord your God is a consuming FIRE; a jealous God" (4:24). The fire that Bnei Yisrael saw at the time of the giving of the Torah will punish anyone who seeks to replace it with an image or idol.

The mention of the voice and the fire at the time of the Revelation is therefore meant to emphasize the third of the Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith:

"I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is not a body, nor do physical phenomena apply to Him, and He has no likeness at all."

D. "HAS A NATION EVER HEARD GOD'S VOICE SPEAKING FROM AMIDST A FIRE?"

The second description of the Sinai Revelation is located at the end of the "historical speech," and it, too, comes to teach us one of the principles of Jewish faith. While the first mention was aimed at preventing undesirable forms of worshipping God, the second comes to prevent the problem of idolatry. It emphasizes the fact that God is the only God: "Know this day, and consider in your heart, that God is the Lord in the heavens above and upon the earth below, THERE IS NO OTHER" (4:39). Here the Sinai Revelation – and especially the fire and the voice – serve as proof of God's uniqueness in the world, because of the unprecedented event that Bnei Yisrael witnessed:

"For ask now of the early days that came before you, from the day wGod created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heaven until the other: has such a great thing as this ever been, or has such a thing ever been heard? Have people ever heard of the VOICE of God speaking from amidst a FIRE, as you have heard, and live?"

The fact that never before has an entire nation heard the voice of God speaking from amidst a fire proves that God is the only God. [5] Anyone who was at Sinai is meant to arrive at the obvious conclusion: "You have been shown to know that God is the Lord; there is none other than Him." Here the Revelation at Sinai points to the second of Rambam's Principles:

"I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is unique, and there is no uniqueness like Him in any way, and He alone is our God – He was, He is and He will be."

E. "WHY SHALL WE DIE, FOR THIS GREAT FIRE WILL CONSUME US?"


The third mention of the Revelation appears at the beginning of the "speech of the mitzvot." Thus, it is related not to principles of understanding God Himself, like the previous ones, but rather to the foundations of the mitzvot. Obviously, this also explains why this recollection of Sinai also contains a full list of the Ten Commandments. [6] Indeed, the central lesson to be learned from the fire and the voice in this chapter concerns the fright experienced by Bnei Yisrael on that occasion, and their request that Moshe mediate between them and God:

"And now, why shall we die – for this great FIRE will consume us; if we continue to hear the VOICE of the Lord our God we shall die. For who, of all flesh, can hear the VOICE of the living God speaking from amidst fire, as we have, and live? You draw close, and hear all that God our Lord tells you, and you shall tell us all the God our Lord has told you, and we shall hear, and we shall do."

In order to prevent any undermining of the authenticity of Moshe's prophecy, it is emphasized here that it was by request of Bnei Yisrael that they did not receive the Torah directly from God, preferring instead to suffice with what they saw at Sinai, while the rest they would hear from Moshe. Thus the parasha concludes:

"Go say to them: 'Return to your tents.' But you remain standing here with Me, and I shall tell you all the laws and the statutes and the judgments that you shall teach them and which they shall do in the land that I give them as an inheritance."

The third mention of the Sinai Revelation is meant, then, to illustrate the seventh and eighth of the 13 Principles:

"I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moshe our Teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the father of the prophets – of those who preceded him and those who came after him."

"I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have in our hands is the one that was given to Moshe our Teacher, peace be upon him."

This idea appears once again in Sefer Devarim, in expanded form. Later on, in chapter 18, the Torah presents the prohibition against listening to diviners or soothsayers, along with the obligation of listening to a prophet. This obligation is based upon the principle we have discussed here:

"For these nations, whom you inherit, listen to diviners and soothsayers; but the Lord your God has not permitted this to you. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from amongst you, from your brethren, like me – to him shall you listen, just as you asked of the Lord your God at Chorev, on the day of your gathering, saying: 'Let us not hear any longer the VOICE of the Lord our God, and let us not see any more this great FIRE, that we may not die.' And God said to me, 'They have spoken well. I shall raise up for them a prophet from amongst their brethren, like you, and I shall put My words in his mouth and he shall tell them all that I command him.'" (18:14-18)

Here, too, the obligation of listening to the prophet like Moshe is based upon the fact that it was Bnei Yisrael who requested this arrangement, preferring not to hear the voice and see the fire directly.

F. "THAT THEY MAY LEARN TO FEAR ME"

All that we have said above should not blur the crux of the Revelation at Sinai. While the fire and the voice served as devices to convey fundamental lessons concerning Divine worship, the main purpose of the event concerned not the fire and the voice, but rather the content of what was said:

"The day when you stood before the Lord your God and Chorev, when God said to me, 'GATHER to me the nation and I shall proclaim to them My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the land, and that they may teach their children.'" (4:10)

The central purpose was to teach the nation fear of God, through hearing the words of Torah, while the three messages upon which we dwelled above were a sort of "added benefit."

It is important that this point be clear, because it is this that makes it possible to "relive," to some degree, the Revelation at Sinai every seven years. Many commentators have noted that the "hak'hel" event described in parashat Vayelekh is essentially similar to the experience at Sinai:

"Gather the nation – the men, the women and the children, and the stranger who is in your gates – in order that they may hear and in order that they may learn and fear the Lord your God and observe to do all the words of this Torah." (30:12)

The command "Gather" (hak'hel) is a repetition of the command mentioned above, concerning the Sinai Revelation (4:10). Similarly, we also find in Sefer Devarim that the Sinai experience is called "the day of GATHERING" (see 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). The purpose mentioned in the "hak'hel" event is also very similar to the central purpose of the Sinai experience, as we have pointed out. Had the fire and the voice represented the crux of the Sinai experience, it would have been impossible to relive the experience – even on a limited level – without another Divine revelation. The reliving of Sinai concerns only its essential substance: learning the fear of God as a result of the very hearing of the words of Torah, even without the additional lessons that were conveyed by the fire and the voice.

 

 

NOTES:

[1] This description includes a full list of the Ten Commandments.

[2] It should be noted that while in Sefer Shemot the names "Mount Sinai" and "the wilderness of Sinai" are repeated over and over, in Sefer Devarim we find the Torah using the name "Chorev." In Sefer Shemot, "Chorev" is mentioned only in contexts other than the Revelation (Shemot 17:6; 33:6). In Sefer Devarim, the name "Mount Sinai" is mentioned nowhere in all the accounts of the Revelation, and only once in the entire Sefer does the word appear: in the verse, "God came from Sinai and emerged from Se'ir to them" (33:2).

[3] See also Devarim 9:10-15: "God gave me the two tablets of stone, inscribed by God's finger, and upon them all the things that God spoke with you at the mountain from amidst THE FIRE, on the day of gathering… I turned and descended the mountain, and the mountain was burning WITH FIRE, and the two Tablets of Testimony were upon my two hands.

See also Devarim 10:4: "He inscribed upon the tablets as the first inscription, the Ten Commandments that God spoke to you at the mountain from amidst THE FIRE, on the day of gathering…"

Finally, see Devarim 33:2: "God came from Sinai and emerged from Se'ir to them; He appeared from the mountain of Paran and came from holy multitudes; from His right hand came a FIERY law for them."

[4] The verb "sh-m-r" (observe) appears – not surprisingly – seven times in this chapter.

[5] There exists a certain resemblance here to the third set of plagues in Egypt, whose purpose was also, apparently, to prove God's uniqueness – as Moshe declares in God's name at the start of this series: "In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth" (Shemot 9:14). This proof, too, was based upon the fact that the plagues that struck Egypt were unprecedented, as highlighted by the plagues of hail and locusts, both in the warning preceding them and in their actual appearance:

    1. Hail – "I shall rain down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the likes of have never been seen in Egypt from the day of its founding until now" (ibid. verse 18); "And there was hail AND FIRE burning within the hail, very strong, the likes of which had never happened in all the land of Egypt from the time it became a nation" (ibid., verse 24; attention should be paid to the fact that here, too, the fire is part of the unprecedented nature of the event).
    2. Locusts: "They shall fill your houses and the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all of Egypt, such as your fathers and your father's fathers never saw, from the day the appeared in the land until this day" (10:6); "And the locusts arose upon all the land of Egypt, and they rested throughout the borders of Egypt, very many; before them there were no such locusts, nor will there be again" (verse 14).

[6] Abarbanel's well-known commentary here points out that the "speech of the mitzvot" is structured in its entirety according to the order of the Ten Commandments, with each of the laws mentioned here falling into the category of one of the Commandments, in their order.

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 


 

 

 

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