Skip to main content

Vaetchanan | Safe Distance from The Fire

Rav Itiel Gold

In Loving Memory of
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
לע"נ יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל ז"ל
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב

I. The Revelation at Mount Sinai – The Great Fire

The central theme in our parasha is the revelation at Mount Sinai. Moshe mentions it three times across the parasha: twice in Chapter 4 and once again, at length, in Chapter 5 – which includes a citation of the Ten Commandments and an account of the entire revelation. It is clearly important to Moshe to review various aspects of the revelation and its significance.

Moshe’s description of the revelation in our parasha does not merely repeat the events in Parashat Yitro; rather, he emphasizes certain aspects of the events of the revelation and its significance. The most prominent recurring motif in the accounts here is God's revelation in fire. Moshe mentions the fire that accompanied the revelation twelve times – in contrast to the single mention of fire in Parashat Yitro. (Even that one mention is only in passing, as an explanation for the presence of smoke – Shemot 19:18.[1])

God's revelation through fire is common in Tanakh, but its meanings vary. God may reveal himself in fire in order to illuminate, as for example in the pillar of fire that lights the way for the people of Israel (Shemot 13:21). Alternatively, revelation in fire can express awe-inspiring power, which is liable to consume and burn anything that comes too close. This is what happened in the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who are burned by the fire of God (Vayikra 10:2).

It seems that when Moshe he describes the revelation at Mount Sinai, he intends the second meaning of fire – that which consumes and burns. Moshe reiterates in various ways the idea that the revelation at Mount Sinai was a terrifying experience: “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“ (Devarim 4:11). There was a sense of being close to death, owing to the threatening fire, and being saved from it by way of a miracle: “Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?” (v. 33).

For this reason, Moshe sees the entire encounter as an imposition of suffering (yisurim) upon the people:[2]

Out of heaven He made you to hear His voice, that He might instruct (le-yasrekha) you; and upon earth He made you to see His great fire; and you did hear His words out of the midst of the fire. (v. 36)

It was an experience of death-threatening terror. Therefore, even though the people of Israel survived, they refused to undergo the same terrible experience another time:

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. (5:21) 

It appears that Israel was afraid not only of the closeness to God's fire, but of the very hearing of God's word from within the fire ("and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire” – v. 20). Something about hearing the voice from the fire caused great terror. These experiences produced the recognition that God is an awe-inspiring God, as Moshe presents Him between the first two descriptions of the revelation: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God“ (4:24). Moshe uses the fire that was revealed at Sinai as a metaphor for God – “a devouring fire.” He is a “jealous God,” whose will must not be disregarded.

Indeed, Moshe explains that this was the purpose of the revelation at Mount Sinai from the very beginning:

The day that you stood before the Lord your God in Chorev, when the Lord said to me: Assemble 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. (4:10)

II. The People’s Reaction to the Revelation in Fire

Later, after having stated that the purpose of revelation in fire was to inspire awe in the people of Israel, Moshe moves on to describe the revelation itself – which enables us to examine whether the goal was indeed achieved:

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. (5:4-5)

On the face of it, these two verses are contradictory: Verse 4 states that the revelation was face to face, but immediately afterwards, Moshe notes that he stood between the people of Israel and God. It seems that Moshe is trying to emphasize a gap between the plan and the actual execution. The plan was for a face-to-face meeting, but in the end, the people were overwhelmed by fear and Moshe was forced to mediate.[3]

Furthermore, Moshe implies that the people were supposed to ascend the mountain, but they refrained from doing so due to their anxiety: "for you were afraid because of the fire, and went not up into the mount." From here we see that the original plan was that the people should actually ascend the mountain and approach the fire and thereby meet God face to face. However, the people reacted the way people who are terrified naturally react: by avoiding and recoiling from what they perceive as a threat.[4]

It seems that the essence of Moshe's reminder to the people about the deviation from the original plan shows his reservations about it. It is important to Moshe to note that his mediating presence was not part of the original plan, but rather developed after the fact, because of the fear that gripped the people.

However, what exactly does Moshe want from the people? After all, the original goal of the revelation was to create awe through fire; when the people recoiled, the goal was achieved!

III. Moshe’s Response to the Revelation in Fire

It seems that Moshe’s understanding of the idea of awe in the revelation was the reverse of the people’s. When Moshe sees God’s greatness and power, he reacts precisely with the desire to draw near. The people, on the other hand, react with fear and recoiling. This gap between Moshe and the people is evident in the account of the revelation in Parashat Yitro:

And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off… 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 20:14-17) 

Moshe was not pleased when the people recoiled during the revelation, and tried to encourage them to draw near – but his encouragement did not succeed and they chose to stay at a distance. The way in which Moshe tries to calm the people seems to include an internal contradiction: He first calls out to the people, “Fear not,” but then he immediately explains that the purpose of the revelation is "that His fear may be before you.” How is it possible that they should not fear, but rather draw near, even though the purpose of the revelation is to strengthen their fear of God, which involves distancing?

The answer lies in Moshe’s perception of the fear of God. When he experiences a sublime, awe-inspiring Divine vision, he does not react with avoidance, the common human response to fear, but rather with drawing near.

This difference between Moshe and the people arises again in our parasha, in the dialogue described immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai. The appeal to Moshe by the terrified people of Israel is related as follows: 

And 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 does speak 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. (Devarim 5:20-21)

The people fear that they were on the verge of death at the time of the revelation, because of the fire. As may be expected from people in a state of terror, their speech is confused and illogical: they came to know that “God does speak with man, and he lives,” which should be reassuring, but for some reason they are convinced that the next time this happens they will surely die. They go on to feed their fear with another puzzling argument: "For who is all flesh that hears the voice of the living God speaking out of the fire and lives?” (v. 22). Again, this is ostensibly an argument that should calm their concerns, but instead it raises them.

At this point, we might have expected that Moshe would convey the people’s concerns to God, but that is not what happens. Instead, we find that God has been “eavesdropping” on the conversation between the people and Moshe, and that He chooses to intervene:

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. Would 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! (5:24-25)

Why does God "burst" into the conversation and not wait, as usual, for Moshe to convey the people’s words to him?[5]

It seems that, once again, it is being hinted that Moshe has reservations about the entire process taking place. He is not on board with the people's request and is reluctant to relay it to God. Therefore, God was “forced” to intervene and explain to Moshe that it is precisely the direction of the people that is right.[6]

Moshe was apparently surprised by the great terror that gripped the people. He did not believe their fear should lead to the dramatic request that from now on he would mediate between God and the people. From his perspective, the people were supposed to continue to stand together with him and hear all the other commandments.

Later in the Bible, we encounter a similar event that can clarify what happened here. When God's angel appears to Manoach and his wife, Manoach’s response is similar to the reaction of the people here: 

For it came to pass, when the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar; and Manoach and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground… And Manoach said to his wife: We shall surely die, because we have seen God. (Shoftim 13:20-21) 

Like at the revelation at Mount Sinai, here too the Divine revelation is made through fire. Something in the meeting with God's angel throws Manoach off balance and makes him certain that he is about to die. In contrast, his wife reacts calmly:

But his wife said to him: If the Lord were pleased to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt-offering and a meal-offering at our hand, neither would He have shown us all these things, nor would He at this time have told us such things as these. (v. 23)

Manoah's wife understands that a Divine revelation should not lead to death. On the contrary! The revelation shows the virtue of Manoach and his wife, that they are worthy of the encounter.

It seems that the difference between Manoach's reaction and that of his wife is related to the self-esteem which each of them brought to the encounter. Manoach feels he is not worthy of meeting with God. Therefore, he feels the terror of death, due to the formidable gap between himself and Divine perfection. His wife, on the other hand, feels valued; God’s revelation demonstrates that He takes interest in them. Therefore, she is able to embrace the encounter.

A similar process occurs with Moshe and the people at Mount Sinai. God's revelation in fire causes the people to feel anxiety and to recoil, due to their sense of the gap between themselves and the Divine power. Moshe, on the other hand, feels worthy of the revelation. Rather than shying away, he actually approaches the encounter with his head held high.

IV. Moshe at the Burning Bush

Moshe's reaction to the revelation at Mount Sinai is reminiscent of another revelation, which also took place on Mount Sinai – that of the burning bush. There, too, the revelation was in fire, and already then we can see Moshe's unique response to it:

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moshe said: I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush… (Shemot 3:2-5)


Presumably, the fire in the bush was not an ordinary fire, but a Divine, awe-inspiring fire. It is likely that most viewers would have recoiled – but Moshe is instead filled with curiosity due to its uniqueness (that it does not consume the bush). Moshe is made of a different stock; he is drawn to unique and unusual phenomena, while typical human nature prefers the familiar and routine, and recoils from deviations from the norm.[7]

The story of the bush is a sort of test of suitability for leadership. God reveals Himself in the fire, but initially does not call out to Moshe explicitly; rather, He waits to see his reaction. Only when Moshe passes the test and approaches, does it become clear that he is worthy and deserving of revelation: “And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush.”

The main characteristic of Moshe that entitles him to his role is his ability to approach the sublime and awesome, instead of shying away from it. This is the difference between a leader and the rest of the people. The latter prefer the familiar and routine, and shy away from unusual sights. The leader, on the other hand, strives for the sublime, searching for a way to get beyond the familiar and well known.

Moshe assumed leadership at the time of the burning bush, but it is interesting to note that at this stage, Moshe only took it upon himself to lead the people out of Egypt. There was no mention at all of the fact that he would pass on the Torah and mitzvot to them. Moshe's original role was only to take the people out of Egypt and bring them back to the mountain, in order to worship God there, as he was told at the burning bush:

When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain. (Shemot 3:12)

Moshe in fact brought the people out of Egypt and to the very mountain where it all began. He hoped to share with the people the experience he had had there. He hoped that they too, like him, would see the revelation in the fire and draw near to it. In this way, his mission would reach the desired goal: the people will be connected to God and will receive the Torah directly from Him.

To his great surprise, the people reacted to the revelation in the opposite way. They recoiled from the fire, withdrew, and asked not to hear the word of God anymore. At this point, the people asked Moshe to take on a new leadership role – to serve as a mediator between God and them. Moshe is not excited about this, because he knows the beauty and greatness of approaching the fire and wants the people to rise to this level as well. It is God who sees their request as a positive expression of reverence, and says that indeed, henceforth Moshe must function as a mediator:

Would 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! 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. (5:25-27)

God sees the fear of the people, which causes their withdrawal, as desirable and as potentially leading to continued observance of the mitzvot. Moshe is uniquely able to feel both awe and connection to God at the same time; this model does not suit the people. Getting too close to God would not benefit them, but would only cause them unnecessary anxiety. Instead, they are to live their lives, in their tents, while keeping a distance from the Divine sublimity. In their remote living space, they will observe the mitzvot while being in awe of God's fire.

This is a new lesson that God taught Moshe, who had innocently believed that the people must reach absolute devotion like his.

In this context, there is an interesting parallel: Here God says: "Would that (mi yiten) they had such a heart as this always.” Moshe also uses the phrase mi yiten, “would that," in response to Yehoshua’s request to imprison Eldad and Medad who were prophesying in the camp: "Would that (mi yiten) all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!” (Bamidbar 11:29).[8] This correspondence highlights the gap in their positions: Moshe prays that all of the people of God should be prophets, like him; God, in contrast, expresses a much smaller wish – that the people of Israel continue to fear Him and keep His commandments. The realistic aspiration is not to lead all of Israel to prophecy, but to awe and observance of the commandments from a distance. 

This is how God teaches Moshe and us an important lesson: everyone has a proper level of devotion and drawing near to God. Just as too much distance from God is wrong, too much closeness, not in measure with the person, is not desirable. There is no point in forcibly arousing closeness to God, when such a state will only lead to excessive anxiety and the undermining of the person’s very being. It is better to keep the mitzvot from a distance.

(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] In Parashat Yitro, it is the presence of smoke on the mountain that is emphasized, not the fire. The smoke, ashan, is mentioned three times, and similar terms are used two more times (arafel and anan). The account in Parashat Yitro emphasizes the concealment of the revelation through cloud, darkness, and smoke, rather than the direct and striking revelation through fire.

[2] The term "suffering" (yisurim) in the Torah does not refer to the creation of suffering per se, but to the educational act of one in authority towards the party to be educated. This is the case, for example, with the rebellious son: "and though they chasten (ve-yiseru) him, will not listen to them” (21:18). Moshe describes the revelation at Mount Sinai as an educational act towards fear of God, by way of the appearance of fire.

[3] The Ramban understands that the change occurred after the first two commandments. Only those were heard by Israel directly, while they heard the rest of the commandments from Moshe. This interpretation is supported by the language of the Ten Commandments: the first two commandments are spoken by God in the first person ("I am the Lord your God"), while the third commandment shifts to speaking of God in the third person ("You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain").

[4] One can also see in the account in Parashat Yitro that the people moved away from the mountain, instead of approaching it: “And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, 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” (Shemot 20:14-15).

In our parasha, Moshe emphasizes that the people were supposed to go up to the mountain, and a hint of this can be seen in Parashat Yitro as well: "When the ram's horn sounds long, they shall come up to the mount” (Shemot 19:13). There was supposed to be a certain moment when the people would go up the mountain, after the sounding of the shofar. See regarding this the shiur of Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman, “Bimshokh ha-Yovel Heima Ya’alu ba-Har.”

[5] See for example in Shemot 19, during the preparations for the revelation at Mount Sinai, when Moshe repeatedly conveys messages from God to the people and vice versa.

[6] We find a similar situation when God intervenes in the dialogue between Sara and Avraham regarding the expulsion of Yishmael. Sara orders Avraham to expel Yishmael, which does not please Avraham – so God, as it were, "eavesdrops" on the conversation and intervenes in Sara's favor (Bereishit 21:10-12). Here, too, Moshe is not pleased by the words of the people, which "forces" God to intervene on the people’s behalf.

[7] After Moshe approaches the bush, God calls out to him from the midst of the fire, and then tells him: “Draw not closer.” From this it can be understood that Moshe even continued to draw closer and closer, until God had to stop him.

[8] This is a rare phrase in the Torah, appearing in only one additional place.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!