Parshat Yitro -
The Four Stages of
Ma'amad Har Sinai

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

Despite the historical prominence and centrality of Ma'amad Har Sinai as perhaps the most important event in Jewish history, we are surprisingly unfamiliar with the chapter in Chumash that describes the specific events thereof. Simply ask yourself, have you ever gone through Shmot perek 19, pasuk by pasuk, in an attempt to follow its progression?

In this week's shiur, that's exactly what we'll do. [By the time we're done, you'll understand why most teachers shy away from teaching this chapter (it's quite complicated).]

Unquestionably, the primary purpose of Ma'amad Har Sinai was Bnei Yisrael's receiving of the Torah. Nevertheless, their experience during that revelation, as described in 19:1-20:18, is no less important. In the following shiur, we show how the Torah's presentation of this event reflects the dialectic nature of our relationship with God.

[Before you continue, I suggest that you quickly review chapters 19 and 20, noting its flow and primary topics.]

Four Sections
Chapter 19 clearly divides into four distinct sections. Board #1 delineates these four sections, naming them with four 'cute,' succinct titles for easy reference.

We will now review each of these sections to verify these definitions and trace the transition from one unit to the next.

Proposition (19:1-8)
Upon Bnei Yisrael's arrival at Har Sinai (19:1-2), God summons Moshe to the mountain and presents the nation with the following proposition:

"If: You will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant...
Then: You shall be for Me a 'mamlechet Kohanim v'goy kadosh' [a kingdom of priests and a holy nation]..." (19:4-6)
This 'proposition' directly relates to the primary theme of Sefer Breishit. Recall God's covenant with the Avot that their offspring will establish a 'model' nation ["v'heyitem li segulah m'kol ha'amim"] to represent Him ["mamlechet kohanim"] to all mankind ["ki li kol ha'aretz"]. Therefore, before Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah, they must not only confirm their readiness to obey God's commandments, but also recognize that these mitzvot will facilitate their achievement of this Divine goal.

Whereas a covenant requires the willful consent of both sides, this section concludes with Bnei Yisrael's collective acceptance of these terms:

"And the people answered together and said, 'Everything that God has spoken we shall keep,' and Moshe brought the people's answer back to God." (See 19:7-8)
Preparation (19:9-15)
Once Bnei Yisrael accept God's proposal, the next step should be their receiving of His mitzvot; God should now inform Bnei Yisrael of the laws that they have just agreed to observe. First, however, God addresses the issue of how Bnei Yisrael will receive these laws:
"And God said to Moshe, 'I will come to you in the thickness of a cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and in order that they believe in you [i.e. that you are My messenger] forever..." (19:9)
It appears from this pasuk that God plans to use Moshe Rabbeinu as an intermediary to convey His laws to Bnei Yisrael, consistent with Moshe's role as liaison until this time. Nonetheless, God insists that the people 'overhear' His communion with Moshe, so that they truly believe that these laws originate from God, not Moshe.

Up until this point, the flow of events has progressed in a logical, straightforward manner. But here, in the middle of pasuk 9, we encounter our first 'problem.' Now that God has informed Moshe of how He plans to convey His laws, we would expect Moshe to immediately go and convey this message to Bnei Yisrael (as he did in 19:7). Instead, 19:9 continues:

"...then Moshe reported the people's words to God." (19:9)
What's going on? The second half of this pasuk seems to omit an entire clause - it never tells us what the people responded. Instead, it just says that Moshe relayed the people's response back to God!

This question is so glaring and obvious that Rashi 'takes for granted' that everyone would notice it. He begins his commentary by filling in the details of the people's response, without even explicating the problem in the pasuk:

"Et divrei ha'am" [the words of the people]... The people responded: 'We want to hear from You [God], for one cannot compare hearing from a "shliach" (a messenger) to hearing from the King himself, [or they said,] 'We want to see our King!'" (See Rashi 19:9 - he is actually quoting the Mechilta.)
Note how Rashi adds an entire unwritten line to this narrative! According to Rashi, Bnei Yisrael don't accept God's original plan. Instead, they demand to hear the Dibrot from God directly.

What allows Rashi to offer such a bold interpretation?

The structure of the above pasuk implies that the people's response (in the second half) relates to God's plan for Matan Torah (as described in the first half). Although the Torah does not tell us explicitly what the people requested, we can infer their petition from God's response:

"And God told Moshe, 'Go to the people and get them ready ... for on the third day God will reveal Himself in view of all the people on Har Sinai." (See 19:10-11)
God's instructions to Moshe in 19:11 seem to describe a new plan for Matan Torah, in contrast to His plan in 19:9!

As we noted earlier, 19:9 implies that Moshe will act as an intermediary; from now on, we refer to this as Plan A. 19:11, however, implies that Bnei Yisrael themselves will see God; from now on, we refer to this as Plan B. (Throughout the shiur, click on the words "Plan A" or "Plan B" to remind yourself which is which.)

In other words, Rashi claims that the people's response to Plan A (in 19:9) leads God to change His original plan of using Moshe as His intermediary. Now, according to Plan B, Bnei Yisrael will hear the Commandments directly from God. (See Board #2.)

This 'change of plan' can explain why the people now require three days of preparation. In order to prepare themselves for this direct encounter, Bnei Yisrael must first attain a higher level of spiritual readiness, as reflected in the three-day preparation period (see 19:10-15). (See Board #3.)

Are Bnei Yisrael capable of reaching this level? Are they truly ready to receive the Dibrot directly from God? If so, why did God not suggest this direct encounter in the first place? If not, why does God now agree to their request?

To answer these questions, we must analyze the psukim that follow to determine which of these two divine plans actually unfolds.

The preparation for God's "hitgalut" (revelation) continues in 19:12-13. Moshe is commanded to close off the entire area surrounding Har Sinai to assure that no one approaches the mountain. In 19:14-15, Moshe continues to prepare the people for this momentous event.

Now, let's take a look at what actually happens when God reveals Himself on the third day. Does He follow Plan A or Plan B?

Revelation (19:16-19)

"And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, and there were loud sounds and lightening, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the shofar sounded very strong, and the people in the camp all became frightened." (19:16)
Although the intensity of this "hitgalut" may reflect the intense level of Plan B, the description of a thick cloud covering Har Sinai points to the possibility of Plan A (recall 19:9, God's description of Plan A). In any case, the people became so frightened that they remain in the camp rather than gathering at Har Sinai (see 19:16). Moshe himself must go bring them from the camp towards the foot of the mountain (see 19:17). The people now stand around Har Sinai, and we then read another pasuk describing God's "hitgalut":
"And Har Sinai was full of smoke, for God had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke was like a furnace, and the entire mountain shook violently..." (See 19:18)
Here again we find both a covering of smoke (like Plan A) as well as God's descent onto the mountain (like Plan B; note the word "va'yered" in both 19:11 and 19:18!). (See Board #4.)

The stage has now been set for Matan Torah. The people are standing at the foot of Har Sinai and God has revealed Himself - He has descended upon Har Sinai. Therefore, the next pasuk should describe God's proclamation of the Ten Commandments. Let's examine that pasuk (19:19) carefully:

"The sound of the shofar grew louder and louder; as Moshe would speak, God would answer him with a kol." (19:19)
This pasuk gives us not a clue as to what Moshe was saying or what God was answering. Is Moshe saying the Dibrot?

If so, then this pasuk would indicate that the Dibrot are transmitted according to Plan A, with Moshe as the intermediary and the people only 'overhearing' a kol from God. [Compare with 19:9!] (See Board #5.)

If not, then what is Moshe saying and what is God answering?

Rashi's commentary on this pasuk is simply amazing. Again quoting the Mechilta, Rashi claims that indeed this pasuk describes the Ten Commandments. More specifically, Rashi explains that the final clause of this pasuk ["Moshe y'daber..."] actually describes the transmission of the last eight Commandments, but not the first two. This is because Rashi understands that the first two Dibrot were given directly from God - in accordance with Plan B - while the last eight were given via Moshe - in accordance with Plan A. Hence, since this pasuk (19:19) describes Plan A, it could refer only to the last eight Dibrot! (See Board #6.)

[See also Rambam in Moreh N'vuchim II, chapter 33. Note as well that according to Rashi, chapter 19 intentionally omits two key events relating to Plan B - Bnei Yisrael's request for Plan B (in 19:9) and the story of how the first two Dibrot were actually given at the level of Plan B.]

Ramban rejects this explanation of the Mechilta (as do many other commentators) and explains this pasuk much differently. He argues that 19:19 does not describe Matan Torah; rather, it describes the conversation between God and Moshe recorded in the psukim that immediately follow - 19:20-25. (See Board #7.)

[As usual, Ramban prefers to keep the sequence of events according to the order of the psukim, while Rashi is willing to 'change' the order in accordance with his explanation.]

To better appreciate this "machloket" between Rashi and Ramban, we must examine the last set of psukim (19:20-25) before the Ten Commandments (20:1-13). (Note: Different chumashim count the psukim in the Ten Commandments differently; our numbering in this shiur follows the numbering of the text in the window on the lower right of your screen, which is different from the numbering in a Koren Tanach.)

Limitation (19:20-25)

"God descended upon Mount Sinai to the top of the mountain and summoned Moshe to the top of the mountain, and Moshe ascended ... Then God told Moshe: Go down and warn the people lest they break through toward God to see, and many of them will perish. And even the kohanim who are permitted to come closer must prepare themselves..." (19:20-22)
[By the way, note that 19:25 refers to Moshe's conveying this warning to the people, not to his conveying the Dibrot, as is commonly misunderstood.]

According to Ramban, this occurs before Matan Torah, and as such this unit serves as a final warning and preparation before the Dibrot.

[According to Rashi, it is unclear where and how these psukim fit within the story of Matan Torah. Even though Rashi explains 19:19 as depicting the presentation of the Dibrot, it seems that he would maintain that 19:20-25 takes place beforehand - it is part of the ceremony described in 24:3-11, which Rashi himself claims to have occurred before the Dibrot. However, this "sugya" lies beyond the scope of this weeks's shiur.]

In any case, this final set of psukim seem to reflect Plan A, by which God will only appear at the top of the mountain to Moshe, while everyone else must keep their distance down below. Only Moshe is worthy to witness the descent of the "Shchina" onto the top of the mountain. Bnei Yisrael, however, are prohibited from seeing, "lest they die." All of a sudden, it seems as though God now decides to limit His revelation to the top of the mountain.

What happened? Has God reverted to Plan A (that Moshe is to act as an intermediary)? If so, why? On the other hand, if Plan B remains in operation, why does God restrict His revelation to the top of the mountain? Could this be considered some sort of 'compromise'?

There appears to have been a change in plans, but chapter 19 does not seem to provide any explanation for what motivated this change. The details in chapter 20 may, however, provide us with a clue.

The Complete 'Yirah' Story
Towards the end of chapter 20, immediately after the Dibrot, we find yet another story that takes place at Har Sinai:

"And the people all saw the kolot, the torches, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking; the people saw and moved back and stood at a distance. And they told Moshe: 'Why don't you speak to us, and we will listen to you, but God should not speak to us, lest we die.'

"Moshe responded saying: 'Do not be fearful, for God is coming to 'test' you and instill fear within you so that you will not sin.'

"But the people stood at a distance, and Moshe [alone] entered the cloud where God was." (See 20:14-17)

This short narrative provides us with a perfect explanation for why God chooses to revert from Plan B back to Plan A. The reason is quite simple - the people were frightened and overwhelmed by this intense experience of "hitgalut," and they therefore 'change their minds.'

But why is this story recorded in chapter 20? (See Board #8.) Should it not have been recorded in chapter 19?

Indeed, Ramban does place this story in the middle of chapter 19. Despite his general aversion towards rearranging chronology out of the order presented in the Torah, Ramban (on 20:14) explains that this entire parshia (20:14-17) took place earlier, before Matan Torah. Based on a textual similarity with 19:16-19 and a problematic parallel in Devarim 5:20-28, Ramban places this parshia in 19:19, the pasuk that reflects a return to Plan A ["Moshe y'daber v'Ha'Elokim ya'anenu b'Kol" - 19:19]. (See Board #9.)

According to Ramban, this also explains why we find immediately after 19:19 a set of psukim (19:20-25) describing this limitation of God's "hitgalut" before Matan Torah actually begins. [See Ramban on 20:14.]

Rashi and Chizkuni offer a different interpretation. They agree with Ramban that 20:14-17 - the yirah story - is 'out of place,' but they disagree concerning where to put it. While Ramban places this story before Matan Torah, Rashi and Chizkuni claim that it took place during Matan Torah, between the first two and last eight commandments. (See Board #10.)

The Ten Commandments - First or Third Person?
In fact, Rashi's creative solution solves yet another problem. It explains why the text of the Ten Commandments shifts from first to third person after the second commandment. Whereas the first two commandments (20:2-5) are written in first person, indicating that God conveyed them directly to the people [as in Plan B], the last eight commandments (20:6-13) are written in third person, suggesting a less direct form of communication. Apparently, Moshe conveyed these eight Dibrot to the people [Plan A].

[This reflects Chazal's explanation: "Anochi v'Lo Yihiyeh Lachem, m'pi ha'gvurah shma'um" - the first two commandments were heard directly from God (Makkot 24a); see also Chizkuni 20:2.]

Rashi and Chizkuni's explanation has a clear advantage over Ramban's, as it justifies the "transplantation" of the yirah story from its chronological location to 20:14 (after the Dibrot). Since this story took place during the Ten Commandments, the Torah could not record it before the Dibrot. On the other hand, since the Torah could not 'break up' the Dibrot (whereas they form a single unit), this yirah story could not have been recorded where it belongs (i.e. in between the second and third Dibrot). Therefore, the Torah records it instead immediately after the completion of the Ten Commandments.

[Ramban, on the other hand, has difficulty explaining why the Torah presents these parshiot out of order.]

To summarize, in chapter 19, it was unclear whether or not Bnei Yisrael would hear the Dibrot according to Plan A (as God originally had planned) or at the higher level of Plan B (as Bnei Yisrael requested). Later, in chapter 20, the Torah describes how Bnei Yisrael were frightened and requested to revert back to Plan A. Ramban claims that this story took place before Matan Torah, and thus the people heard all ten commandments through Moshe (Plan A). Rashi maintains that this story took place during the Dibrot; hence the first two Dibrot were transmitted according to Plan B, while the remainder were heard according to Plan A.

[Ibn Ezra (see 20:16) takes an opposite approach, maintaining that the yirah story is right where it belongs; it took place only after Matan Torah. Therefore, the people heard all Ten Commandments directly from God, as mandated by Plan B. (See Board #11.)]

A Proof from Sefer Devarim
Based on our discussion, we can resolve two adjacent yet seemingly contradictory psukim in the description of Matan Torah in Devarim:

"Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire [Plan B]. I stood between God and you at that time to convey God's words to you [Plan A], for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain..." (Devarim 5:4-5)
Once again, the Torah incorporates both plans in its description of Matan Torah. Evidently, both plans were in fact carried out, as we explained.

Although we have suggested several solutions to problems raised by chapters 19-20, a much more basic question arises: why can't the Torah be more precise? Why must the Torah obscure the details of such an important event in our history?

Ahava and Yirah
One could suggest that this ambiguity is intentional, as it reflects the very nature of man's encounter with the Divine.

Man, in search of God, faces a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he must constantly strive to come as close to God as possible ("ahava" - the love of God). On the other hand, he must constantly retain an awareness of God's greatness and recognize his own shortcomings and unworthiness ("yirah" - the fear of God). Awed by God's infinity and humbled by his own imperfection, man must keep his distance (see Devarim 5:25-26!).

God's original plan for Matan Torah was 'realistic.' Recognizing better than anyone man's inability to directly confront the "Shchinah," God intends to use Moshe as an intermediary (Plan A). Bnei Yisrael, eager to become active covenantal partners with God, desire to come as close as possible to Har Sinai. They want to encounter the "Shchina" directly, without any mediating agent.

Could God say no to this sincere expression of "ahavat Hashem"? Of course not! Yet, on the other hand, answering yes could place the people in tremendous danger, as they must rise to the highest levels of spirituality to deserve such a direct, unmediated manifestation of God.

Plan A reflects reality, while Plan B signifies the ideal. One could suggest that by presenting the details with such ambiguity, the Torah emphasizes the need to find the proper balance between realism and idealism when serving God.

God Knows Best
Although God knows full well that Bnei Yisrael cannot possibly sustain a direct encounter with the "Shchinah," He nonetheless concedes to their request to hear the Commandments directly. Why?

One could compare this Divine encounter to a parent-child relationship. As a child grows up, there are times when he wishes to do things on his own. Despite his clear incapability to perform the given task, his desire to accomplish is the key to his growth. A wise parent will allow his child to try, even though he knows that the child will fail. Better one recognize the limits of his capabilities on his own rather than be told by others that he cannot accomplish.

On the other hand, although a child's desire to grow should not be inhibited by an overprotective parent, a responsible parent must also know when to tell his child stop.

Likewise, God is well aware of Bnei Yisrael's unworthiness to encounter the Divine at the highest level. Nevertheless, He encourages them to aspire to their highest potential. As Bnei Yisrael struggle to maintain the proper balance between "ahava" and "yirah," God must guide and they must strive.

Our study of Parshat Yitro has shown us that what actually happened at Ma'amad Har Sinai remains unclear. However, what could have happened remains man's eternal challenge.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
A. What would have happened had Bnei Yisrael said no to God's proposition? The Midrash posits that had Bnei Yisrael rejected the offer, the world would have returned to "tohu va'vohu" (void) - the phrase used in Breishit 1:2 to describe the state prior to Creation! [See Shabbat 88a and Rashi 19:17.] From this Midrash, it appears that Bnei Yisrael had no choice but to accept. Why is the covenant binding, if Am Yisrael had no choice?

Any covenant, by its very nature, requires the willful acceptance of both parties. Therefore, according to "pshat," Bnei Yisrael have "bchira chofshit" to either accept or reject God's proposition. Their willful acceptance makes the covenant at Har Sinai binding for all generations. Thus, had Bnei Yisrael said no (chas v'shalom), Matan Torah would not have taken place! However, such a possibility is unthinkable, for without Matan Torah there would have been no purpose for Creation. Therefore, because the psukim indicate that Bnei Yisrael had free choice, the Midrash must emphasize that from the perspective of the purpose behind God's Creation, the people had no choice other than accept the Torah.

B. Study the Ramban to 20:14 (after first reading Devarim 5:19-28). Based on the above shiur, explain why the Ramban changes the order of the parshiot in this specific case.

C. Most m'forshim explain that "b'mshoch ha'yovel hay'mah ya'alu b'Har" (19:13) refers to the long shofar blast that signaled the completion of the "hitgalut" - an 'all clear' signal.

One could suggest exactly the opposite interpretation, that the long shofar blast indicated the beginning of Matan Torah.

D. Compare the details of 19:20-24 to the Mishkan: Rosh Ha'har = kodesh kdoshim; Har = Mishkan; Tachtit Ha'har = azara, etc. Where can Moshe and Aharon enter? What about the Kohanim and the Am?

Explain how this may relate to our theoretical Plan B!

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