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Va-etchanan | "Who Might Grant that they have Such a Heart as this Always, to Fear Me"

Rav Gad Eldad
In Loving Memory of Jeffrey Paul Friedman August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
19.07.2021

<<Wordfile

At the end of the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in our parasha, the Torah describes the people's reaction to their experience of the event:

And it came to pass, when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain burned with fire, that you came near to me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; you said: “Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; we have seen this day that God speaks with man, and he lives. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go you near and hear all that the Lord our God may say; and you shall speak to us all that the Lord our God may speak to you; and we will hear it and do it”. And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken. Who might grant that they have such a heart as this always, to fear Me and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Go say to them: Return you to your tents. But as for you, stand you here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it.” (Devarim 5:19-27)[1]

As elsewhere in the book of Devarim, the event itself is familiar to us from a long time ago, though now we are introduced to new aspects of it. Scripture first described this event at the time of its occurrence:

And all the people perceived the thunder, and the lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. And they said to Moshe: “Speak you with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moshe said to the people: Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before you, that you sin not.” And the people stood afar off; but Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Shemot 20:14-19)

The most striking addition in Devarim is God's response to the people, which does not appear in the book of Shemot. Beyond the very fact that God responded to their words, however, the content of His own words is formulated in a surprising manner:

“Who might grant that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!”

The gemara formulated the perplexity emerging from these lines in its own way:

Our Rabbis taught: In the verse, "Who might grant that they have such a heart as this always," Moshe said to Israel: You are an ungrateful people, the offspring of an ungrateful ancestor. When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you: "Who might grant that they have such a heart always," you should have said: "You grant!" (Avoda Zara 5a)

The gemara is pointing to the strange element in this verse – that God "prays" for the constant maintenance of His fear among the people. The Rishonim struggled with this formulation and proposed a uniform solution, brought also by the Chizkuni (ad loc.):

"Who might grant that they have such a heart as this always" – Even though it is in My power to grant this, the Torah spoke in the manner of the language of man.

The Ramban relates to the issue in a fuller manner and explains the reason that God is prevented from acting on the matter, and therefore "forced to pray": 

Since man was granted free choice to act righteously or to be wicked, and everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven, Scripture speaks in this manner, it being in accordance with the language of man. 

This solution provides a theological-philosophical answer to the initial meaning that emerges from the wording of the verse as it is, but it raises a new question in its place. Why did the Torah choose a formulation that is "in accordance with the language of man" in such a delicate situation? Moreover, this formulation of the words of God is unique![2]

"And the Lord Heard the Voice of Your Words, When You Spoke to Me"

To clarify this matter, we must focus on another exceptional point found in this section:

And it came to pass, when you heard the voice… that you came near to me… you said: “Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire… Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us… Go you near, and hear all that the Lord our God may say; and you shall speak to us… and we will hear it and do it.” And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken.” (vv. 19-24)

Scripture relates that God heard the words of the people to Moshe. This fact should not surprise us; the Bible rests on the notion that everything is known and revealed to God, though we rarely find such a direct description of the phenomenon. For the purpose of comparison, we will cite the parallel description in the book of Shemot regarding the preparations that were made for the revelation at Mount Sinai:

And Moshe went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying: “Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakov and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings… Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant… and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” And Moshe came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” And Moshe reported the words of the people to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moshe: “Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” And Moshe told the words of the people to the Lord. (Shemot 19:3-9)

Here we follow a continuous dialogue between the people and God that is conducted through Moshe. Despite the description of this dialogue, it is clear to all that the Bible maintains that God does not actually need Moshe's updates concerning the words of the people. Once again, we turn to the key phrase that was already mentioned: "The Torah speaks in the manner of the language of man." In the wake of this, however, we must try to understand why here Scripture skips over the mediation phase of Moshe and tells us that God heard the words of the people directly.

"I Have Heard the Voice of the Words of this People, Which They Have Spoken to You"

Now let us go back to the section with which we began and divide it into two, paying special attention to the words that repeat themselves in it.

And it came to pass, when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain burned with fire, that you came near to me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; you said: “Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire; we have seen this day that God speaks with man, and he lives. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go you near, and hear all that the Lord our God may say; and you shall speak to us all that the Lord our God may speak to you; and we will hear it and do it.

In this passage, the people emphasize that they are in the position of the "hearer," while God is in the position of the "speaker." In light of their fear, they ask Moshe to stand in the middle, so that Moshe will be the "hearer" in relation to God and then become the "speaker" in relation to the people. The next verse contains God's response to the proposal:

And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken.

Scripture uses exactly the same words, but creates a presentation in which the characters switch roles. Now the people are the speakers, while God is the hearer. Though this is not exactly true, for the people speak to Moshe and not to God, we can now understand why God is described as listening in to the words of the people. The people asked Moshe to work himself into the dialogue between them and God, and thus bring an end to the situation in which God speaks to the people and the people stand before Him in the role of hearer. In order to create a perfect reversal of roles, in which God hears the people who are speaking, God must relate to their direct words and declare that He heard them. Only then will the reversal of roles be complete.

"You Heard the Voice of Words"

            This attempt on the part of Scripture to present the people in direct dialogue with God expresses itself in a different point. Before Moshe teaches the people the content of the revelation at Sinai, he wants to understand their nature:

Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your children and your children's children; the day that you stood before the Lord your God in Chorev, when the Lord said to me: “Assemble to Me the people, and I will make them hear My words that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children.” And you came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only a voice. And He declared to you His covenant, which He commanded you to perform, even the ten words; and He wrote them upon two tables of stone. (4:9-13)

For obvious reasons, the people cannot see God, “for man shall not see Me, and live," and therefore Moshe takes pains to emphasize this to the people so that they will avoid deviating from the path of truth:

Take you therefore good heed to yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Chorev out of the midst of the fire, lest you deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female. (4:15-16)

Now let us pay attention to the wording that God uses in relation to the words of the people to Moshe, when the Bible reverses the roles:

And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken.” (5:24)

The Bible seemingly has no reason to put in the mouth of God the fact that he heard the "voice of the words of the people." The verse would have been completely understood had this word been absent.[3] The verse is worded as it is because Scripture wishes to make the words of the people parallel the words of God at the time of the giving of the Ten Commandments and to turn their words into the next stage in the continuation of the direct dialogue that began on Mount Sinai.

Now that we have successfully discerned this intention, let us attempt to understand why the Bible strives to create a perfect reversal of roles between God and the people.

"The Lord Our God Made a Covenant with us in Chorev"

Moshe chooses to open his oration concerning the mitzvot with the foundational event of the giving of the mitzvot at Mount Sinai:

And Moshe called to all Israel and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that you may learn them, and observe to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire. I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and went not up into the mount, saying. (5:1-5)

Moses wishes to confer additional meaning upon the revelation at Mount Sinai beyond the initial giving of the fundamental mitzvot. He relates to it as an assembly of covenant. In truth, this ambiguity concerning the event has been with us since its occurrence.[4] In this context, note that our chapter testifies about itself from the very beginning that this is its perspective on the event. In my opinion, this aspect has the potential to resolve the perplexities that were pointed out above.

By its very definition, a covenant involves two parties, standing on opposite sides. Each party assumes an obligation and receives something in exchange. Precisely for this reason, defining the giving of the Torah and the mitzvot as the formation of a covenant involves a significant novelty in everything related to the relationship between man and his Creator. We tend to remember the negative consequences of the Torah as a covenant, in the case when the people stray from the Torah's path and become liable to punishment for having broken the covenant. The Torah does, in fact, elaborate on such conduct with frightening descriptions, but they must not overshadow the other side included in the covenant. If Israel obeys the Torah's commandments, God is obligated to provide them with the reward promised to them in the covenant. Setting man against God as equals and defining the Creator as legally obligated to His creatures is a revolutionary innovation that the Torah introduced into the world. From this perspective, our chapter wishes to add to it another tier.

"Who Might Grant that They Have Such a Heart as this Always to Fear Me"

Now that we understand the intent of Scripture that emerges from the description of the event as it is presented in our chapter, we can advance another step. We will now concentrate on explaining the formulation of God's response as if it were a prayer, wording that forced the commentators to unanimously proclaim: "The Torah spoke in the manner of the language of man." In my opinion, this formulation strengthens the characterization of the assembly as the making of a covenant.

We have already demonstrated that defining the relationship between God and His people as a covenant requires a "give and take" relationship between them. As far as the people are concerned, they "give" observance of the commandments and receive reward. Describing the relationship in this manner may seem ridiculous, since it is clear to all that the people do not "give" God the commandments; thus, portraying the relationship as a covenant, while raising the status of Israel, is problematic. God's response to the words of the people comes precisely to shore up this weakness. Scripture offers an account that, were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say: God stands in the position of "hearer" regarding the words of the people, after having spoken His words to them, and He proclaims that He needs their fear! He longs for it and wishes it for Himself. But what does this mean? Scripture explains this in the words that follow: "That it might be well with them and with their children forever."

This objective is repeated many times in our book. The simple meaning of this is that God loves His people and longs for their well-being, like a parent who wants all the good for his descendants. The Ramban, however, teaches us that there is something here beyond that:

Scripture says that by right we should remain that way in exile forever… For now in our exile the credit of the forefathers has come to an end, and there are no grounds for our being rescued from the hands of the nations, other than for His name. As Yechezkel said (20:41, 44): "I will gather you out of the countries wherein you have been scattered; and I will be sanctified to you in the sight of the nations… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for My name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O You house of Israel"; and it is further stated (v. 9): "But I wrought for My name's sake, that it should be profaned in the sight of the nations."

Therefore, Moshe mentioned in his prayer (Bamidbar 14:15): "Then the nations which have heard the fame of You will speak, saying: [Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land]." And God conceded to him about this (v. 9): "And the Lord said: I have pardoned according to your word." As for the basis for this argument, it is not as if He wants to demonstrate His power among His haters, for all the nations are like nothing before Him. Rather, God created man in the lower world so that he might recognize his Creator and show gratitude to His name. He put free choice in his hand to do evil or to do good. When they deliberately sinned and denied Him, only this nation remained to serve His name. He made known through them by way of signs and miracles that He is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, and He was known through this to all the peoples. Now, if He blots out their memory, the peoples will forget His signs and His actions and they will no longer be related. And if someone mentions them, they will think that this was by way of the power of the stars and planets and has passed. Thus, the intention underlying the creation of man will be completely cancelled, as there will not remain among them anyone who knows his Creator, but only those who make Him angry. Therefore, it is fitting by way of the intention underlying the creation of the world that He desire to establish for Himself a people for all time, as they are the closest to Him and those who know Him best from among all the nations.  (Ramban, Devarim 32:26, s.v. ashbita me-enosh zikhram)

God created the world with a clear objective. In order to achieve it, He assigned His people an important role. In this situation, which God Himself  desired and therefore bound Himself into, He does in fact require the help of the people of Israel to complete his plan. Thus, Scripture clarifies that God and His people walk hand in hand towards the betterment of the world. Just as the loss of the people of Israel would make the creation of the world superfluous, so the abundance of their blessing, bestowed upon them for their obedience to the path set by the Creator for His world, will serve as a light for the other peoples, and also incentivize them to remain true to the right path. If so, the good of the chosen people directly affects the good of the Creator, who in this way will succeed in fulfilling the task that He had set for Himself.

(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the book of Devarim.

[2] For the sake of comparison, see the verse brought by the Ibn Ezra in the course of his comments: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed" (Devarim 30:19). In the spirit of our verse, that verse could also have read: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; who might grant that you choose life!"

[3] The Abravanel already this phrase and offered a remarkable explanation (see also R. S. R. Hirsch and Ha'amek Davar):

Chazal expounded in Devarim Rabba, Parashat Vaetchanan: “And you [ve-at, in the feminine] shall speak to us” – You exhausted my strength as if I were a woman and you weakened my hand, for I saw that you were not eager to approach Him out of love and that it was not more preferable to you to learn from the mouth of God than to learn from me – until God informed him that it was not like what he thought. For while it seemed that what they said that God should not speak to them was to their discredit, God understood the meaning of their words. This is what it says: “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me.” That is to say, He did not relate to the words themselves, but to the voice of the words, the voice being good and fit and for a fine purpose. Therefore, He said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have well said all that they have spoken.” That is to say, you should judge the words in accordance with the voice, for a person's words are good or bad in accordance with the voice and the manner in which he says them. These words that they spoke, if they were spoken in a voice of malice, or anger, or revulsion, they would be evil and sinful words. But since they were spoken in a voice of supplication, the voice indicates that they have well said all that they have spoken.

In my opinion, however, the plain meaning of the text alludes to the point that we have made.

[4] I expanded upon this point in the VBM shiur for Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, 5780, "Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ve-Sefer Ha-Berit."

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