The narrative surrounding the Ten Commandments can often be confusing, and is easy to lose sight of given the importance of the commandments themselves. However, through a close read of the פסוקים, we can achieve understanding of the entirety of the experience for משה and בני ישראל. In order to do this, we will examine מעמד הר סיני through the lens of the tension between the Torah’s two main modes of experiencing the divine: אהבה ויראה, love and awe, found in the Torah.
Let’s take a look at the structure of chapter 19 while noting the פסוקים that require explanation. Questions and challenges will be interspersed with the text, and answered after the text is summarized and quoted.
Verses 1-8: HaShem tells Moshe the terms of the covenant, which Moshe then conveys to the people. They accept, and Moshe returns to HaShem with the message of acceptance.
ט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י בָּ֣א אֵלֶ֘יךָ֮ בְּעַ֣ב הֶֽעָנָן֒ בַּעֲב֞וּר יִשְׁמַ֤ע הָעָם֙ בְּדַבְּרִ֣י עִמָּ֔ךְ וְגַם־בְּךָ֖ יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לְעוֹלָ֑ם וַיַּגֵּ֥ד מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־ה׳
9 And ה׳ said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” Then Moses reported the people’s words to ה׳
What words is משה reporting to ה׳ here? He has not gone back to communicate with them!
י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ם הַיּ֖וֹם וּמָחָ֑ר
10 And ה׳ said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow.
Verses 9-15 continue with the instructions for preparation: A three-days-long sanctification along with warnings about the perils of coming too close to the mountain when the divine presence dwells upon it. Why weren’t these instructions part of the first message? Why did משה have to make an extra trip for this?
טז וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃ יז וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃ יח וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵ֠י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו ה׳ בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כּל־הָהָ֖ר מְאֹֽד׃ יט וַיְהִי֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר הוֹלֵ֖ךְ וְחָזֵ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָאֱלֹקִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל׃
16 On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for ה׳ had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.
The scene here is very different from what ה׳ describes in verse 10, most notably the addition of fire and smoke instead of a cloud. It is also important to note that it is unclear exactly where משה is positioned here. Is he at the foot of the mountain with the people? Has he gone up the mountain?
While the rest of the narrative through chapter 20 deserves equal treatment, for this short format we will examine only until Exodus 19:19.
In order to unlock the narrative events, we will attempt to solve all of the problems presented here with one, coherent narrative. Our first question, what message did משה convey, is answered in the מכילתא quoted by רש”י:
את דברי העם וגו’. תְּשׁוּבָה עַל דָּבָר זֶה; שָׁמַעְתִּי מֵהֶם שֶׁרְצוֹנָם לִשְׁמֹעַ מִמְּךָ, אֵינוֹ דּוֹמֶה הַשּׁוֹמֵעַ מִפִּי שָׁלִיחַ לַשּׁוֹמֵעַ מִפִּי הַמֶּלֶךְ, רְצוֹנֵנוּ לִרְאוֹת אֶת מַלְכֵּנוּ (מכילתא):
The Words of the People etc.—He said to God: “I have heard from them a reply—that their desire is to hear the commandments from You. One who hears from the mouth of a messenger is not the same as one who hears directly from the King. It is our wish to see our King (cf. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:9:2).
Up until this point, the Israelites’ experience of God has been through acts of power, experiencing יראה almost exclusively. After having accepted upon themselves the responsibilities of the covenant, they express a desire to experience ה׳ in a different way, from a place of love, אהבה. Let not ה׳ remain a distant, awesome power, they say. Let us feel close to ה׳, to feel an intimacy in the receiving of the Law.
ה׳ acquiesces to the request, though it comes with the three days long preparation added in verses 10-15, thus explaining why these instructions were not part of the initial message. Only after the people express their desire to be close to ה׳ through love is the sanctification necessary.
At the same time, there is a pull back from the pure אהבה that the people desire. While it may be possible to have some intimacy with the divine, this is also a dangerous prospect and requires preparation, seriousness, and purity of mind and body. יראה, responds ה׳, must be a part of the experience as well.
The pull towards יראה continues on the third day, when God appears not in a cloud, but in a fire, surrounded by smoke, thunder, lightning, and a shaking mountain. The intent lands: the people need משה to coax them out of the camp in order to bring them towards this awesome mountain. I would like to posit that משה remains with the people at this moment for two reasons. First, the text continues with ה׳ calling משה up the mountain in verse 20. In a straightforward read, it makes sense to say he is at the foot of the mountain through verse 19. Second, משה remaining with the people makes the experience of that moment a unified, national experience, one in which all the people are able to witness the totality of this divine experience, in all of its love and all of its awe.
The people of Israel understandably wanted to experience ה׳ with אהבה; they might have needed to see it in order to know it was there. God understood this need, and yet needed to keep יראה in place, as our relationship with the divine can not be either one or the other. Reading the narrative, it seems that the יראה was too much for the people of Israel: In chapter 20, they revoke their request, asking משה to be God’s messenger. Though God wanted to show the people they could experience אהבה, it is also true that this aspect of relating to the divine might come easier for many people than יראה. Without visceral, awe-inspiring reminders, our יראת שמיים may easily wane. We are reminded through our ancestors’ experience of the divine to be mindful of our relationship with God, and to work towards living in the tension of יראה and אהבה.