PARASHAT YITRO - The Dual Revelation at Sinai
By: Rav Tamir Granot
At the heart of Parashat Yitro we find, of course, the Ten Commandments that God proclaimed at Sinai. The discussion concerning the particular stature of the commandments and the traditions regarding them is both ancient and critical. During the time of Chazal, this issue carried significant weight due to what the Talmud refers to as kefirat ha-minim (the heretics' rejection), meaning, the rejection of the mitzvot among Christian sects and the viewing of the Ten Commandments as the basis of the New Testament. Chazal therefore instructed that the ritual role of the Commandments be minimized.
In this shiur we will explore, according to the plain reading of the text, the status of the Ten Commandments within the general framework of God's Revelation at Sinai.
A study of the narrative progression from Am Yisrael's arrival at Sinai, as described in chapters 19,20,21 and 24, reveals a number of fundamental difficulties in understanding the function of the Commandments.
Of course, the corresponding narrative in Sefer Devarim – starting from chapter 4 – is also significant for our discussion, and we must therefore take into account the Torah's description in that context. Nevertheless, we will limit ourselves here to the material that appears in Sefer Shemot.
The Ten Commandments are introduced with the header, "God spoke all these words, saying" (Shemot 20:1), indicating that the Commandments are spoken by the Almighty. The verse does not tell us, however, to whom they are spoken. Who hears this divine proclamation?
It is commonly assumed that God here speaks to the entire nation, but this is not explicit at all in the verse. Moreover, several verses might point us in a different direction, indicating that the primary revelation is not to the people:
1. Earlier, when God explains to Moshe the purpose of the Revelation at Sinai, He says to him, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the nation hear when I speak with you, and also they will believe in you forever…" (19:9). According to this verse, the purpose of the Revelation is to establish the belief in Moshe's prophecy, as the nation hears God speak to Moshe. God does not proclaim His intent to speak to the people, nor is there any need for this in light of the essential aim of this event. If the objective is the belief in Moshe's prophecy, it suffices for the nation to know that God spoke to Moshe; no direct revelation to them is necessary.
2. After the Commandments, it says, "The entire nation beheld the sounds, the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain… They said to Moshe, 'You speak with us, and we will listen; let not God speak to us, lest we die.'" If God indeed spoke to the people and completed what He had to say, the nation's request seems difficult to understand. They mention the sounds and lightening, but make no mention of God speaking to them, which is perhaps the most frightening experience of all. Furthermore, if God already spoke to them, then either they should already be dead, or they should have nothing more to fear. It appears that the people are afraid that now God will speak to them, something that has not occurred until this point.
Chazal seem to have addressed this difficulty, and explained that the people submitted this request after the proclamation of the first two Commandments: "They heard Anokhi and Lo yihyeh lekha [the first two Commandments] from the mouth of the Almighty." This explanation is based on a difference in style between the first two and subsequent eight Commandments. The first two are written in first-person form – "I am the Lord your God who has taken you" ("AnokhiHashem Elokekha asher hotzeitikha"); "beside Me" ("al panai") – indicating that they were spoken directly from God. Alternatively, however, it is possible that the Torah simply cites God's words to Moshe – which were certainly said in first-person form – and not His words to the nation.
The final eight Commandments are said in third-person form: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… For in six days did the Lord… on the land that the Lord your God is giving you…" These Commandments, thus, were certainly not heard directly from God, and were rather conveyed through Moshe. Chazal understood that this transition sheds light on the rest of the Torah: just as Benei Yisrael heard these eight Commandments from Moshe, even though they were transmitted on Mount Sinai, so did they learn the rest of the Torah from Moshe. As mentioned, in this manner Chazal resolve the difficulties we raised above: the nation was struck with fear after the first two Commandments, and Moshe granted their request that he convey to them the rest of God's instruction.
Nevertheless, although this explanation neatly resolves the discrepancy in style between the first two and subsequent eight commandments, it leaves us unsatisfied for a number of reasons:
- The Ten Commandments are presented as a single unit, and we find no indication whatsoever in the text that their proclamation was disrupted at any stage.
- Moshe's response to the people does not appear to reflect his granting of their request: "Moshe said to the people, 'Have no fear, for it is in order to test you that God has come…'" If, asChazal explain, God has already spoken to the people, then He should have continued doing so once Moshe calmed their fears. Thus, there is no indication that He stopped speaking, with the exception, of course, of the shift in style as we have already discussed.
- Earlier, the Torah describes the Revelation as follows: "Moshe would speak, and God would answer him in a voice." The speaker is Moshe; God is not described as speaking to the nation. The expression "ya'anenu ve-kol" ("will answer him in a voice") is a difficult one, but in any event it seems not to refer to plain speech.
Let us now return to our main contention, namely, that it does not appear that God speaks to the nation directly. This claim is reinforced by a verse that appears later, after the presentation of the laws (mishpatim) to the people: "Moshe came and spoke to the people all the words of the Lord and all the laws. The entire nation responded in a single voice, saying: All the things that the Lord has spoken – we will do and we will hear" (24:3). Moshe there speaks to Benei Yisraelabout two areas: "the words of the Lord," and "the laws" (mishpatim). "Mishpatim" clearly refers to the laws presented before this narrative, in the section that begins, "Ve-eileh ha-mishpatim" (21:1). To what, however, does "divrei Hashem" ("words of the Lord") refer? Seemingly, the Torah refers here to the verse that introduces the Ten Commandments: "God spoke all thesewords, saying." Meaning, "divrei Hashem" here means the Ten Commandments. If so, we can draw evidence from the mishpatim to the Commandments. The mishpatim were most certainly spoken only to Moshe, as the Torah tells, "and Moshe entered the mist… The Lord said to Moshe: So shall you say to Benei Yisrael… And these are the mishpatim that you shall present to them…" Moshe was instructed from the outset to convey to the people the laws that he now receives from God, and this is indeed what he does. Presumably, this is true also of the divrei Hashem: "Moshe came and spoke to the people all the words of the Lord and all the laws." Seemingly, until now only Moshe heard God's word, and now he conveys to the people what he heard.
Moreover, the ambiguity of the introductory verse to the Commandments requires some explanation. In all instances where the Torah relates that God spoke, it informs us as well of to whom He spoke. Here, however, the Torah writes simply that He spoke: "God spoke all these things, saying."
In order to understand the progression of events in this narrative, I would suggest the following theory as to the development of this narrative, and that we read the verses in this light. By way of introducing this theory, I would like to observe an inherent contradiction in the verses' description of the nation's conduct. Three times in chapter 19, God sends Moshe to admonish the people not to approach the mountain, lest they be harmed as a result:
"You shall restrict the people around [the mountain], saying: Beware of ascending the mountain…" (verse 12)
"The Lord said to Moshe: Descend and warn the people, lest they burst forth towards the Lord to see…" (verse 21)
"The Lord said to him: Go, descend… and the kohanim and the people shall not burst forth to ascend…" (verse 23)
The Almighty's primary concern is the possibility of "pen yehersu" – "lest they burst forth," meaning, they will approach the sacred mountain. God's revelation arouses feelings of closeness and spiritual yearning, and, on a somewhat lower level, at least a degree of curiosity and tension; in any event, it causes the people to want to come forward. Even when Moshe refuses to descend to warn the people, claiming that the people are already barred from ascending the mountain, having already been admonished to keep back (verse 23), God insists that he go and issue the warning.
But this concern does not correspond to what is described in the verses following the Commandments: "The entire nation beheld the sounds… The people saw and they trembled, and they stood from afar" (20:15-16). The people's reaction proves that the main problem was specifically awe, which is manifest as an actual, existential fear and a desire to flee, rather than overabundant "love" which arouses a desire to burst forth towards the sacred ground. How, then, can we understand God's concern?
We will attempt to find a key to the solution in the corresponding verses in Sefer Devarim(chapter 5), where Moshe describes Ma'amad Har Sinai:
1) Moshe called to all Israel and said to them: Hearken, O Israel, to the statutes and laws that I speak in your ears today; study them and ensure to perform them.
2) The Lord our God established a covenant with us in Chorev [Sinai].
3) The Lord did not establish this covenant with our fathers, but rather with us – we, those who are here, all of us who live.
4) The Lord spoke with you at the mountain face-to-face from amidst the fire.
5) I was standing in between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the Lord's word, because you were afraid of the fire and did not ascend the mountain – saying:
6) I am the Lord your God who took you from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
We will focus our attention on verses 4-5, which are of particular importance for our discussion. Moshe wishes to convey to the child generation the basic memory of the Revelation, emphasizing that it occurred not through an intermediary, but rather "face-to-face." However, his final remarks directly contradict his earlier remarks. In verse 4, he asserts that God spoke "face-to-face," whereas in verse 5 he tells that he himself served as the intermediary bringing God's word to the nation. Each verse could be stated independently, but presenting the two together is inherently contradictory.
It seems that we can read the verses as follows. God wanted to speak with the nation directly, but the people's fear resulted in Moshe's mediation between them and God. Moshe's role as intermediary apparently had physical implications, as well. "Face-to-face" communication means closeness, and if Moshe served as intermediary, then God spoke to only him from up close, "face-to-face," whereas the people stood from afar. It stands to reason that Moshe also means to say that although the nation de facto stood from afar and was not privileged to behold a direct revelation, the revelation is nevertheless considered to have occurred "face-to-face." That is to say, fundamentally, our memory can portray the Revelation at Sinai as a revelation to the entire nation, even if, factually speaking, this never materialized.
Verse 5 concludes with the word "leimor" (saying), which introduces the Ten Commandments which are presented immediately thereafter. It possibly serves as the conclusion of verse 4, which would then be read as, "The Lord spoke with you…face-to-face…saying: I am the Lord your God…" If so, then the explanation in verse 5 should be read as a parenthetical remark.
Either way, according to these verses, the Ten Commandments were said after the nation expressed its fear, and Moshe served as intermediary bringing God's word to the people. It is thus clear from Sefer Devarim that God did not speak at all directly to the nation; the Commandments were all conveyed through Moshe's mediation.
In light of this information from Sefer Devarim, let us now suggest the sequence of events as portrayed in Sefer Shemot, working off the assumption that the verses do not necessarily reflect the chronological sequence.
In my opinion, verses 15-18 of chapter 20 in Sefer Shemot belong (chronologically) after the verse 19:19. The chronological presentation would thus appear as follows:
"The sound of the shofar continued with great force; Moshe would speak and the Almighty will answer him in a voice."
Immediately thereafter, "The entire nation beheld the sounds, the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain; the people saw and they trembled…" Meaning, the nation's fear and request that Moshe convey to them God's word preceded the Commandments and resulted not from the Commandments, but rather from the sounds, torches and shofar blast described in the earlier verses ("And Mount Sinai was entirely in smoke…"). The people, who know that God will soon speak ("in order that the nation hear when I speak with you" – 19:9), are frightened and ask that He speak only with Moshe. Moshe assuages their fears, and it is unclear whether he grants their request. If we insert the Ten Commandments immediately at this point, a reasonable progression emerges:
Moshe said to the people: Have no fear…
The people stood from afar, and Moshe entered the mist, where God was.
God spoke all these words, saying: "I am the Lord…"
In other words, I suggest reading 20:15-18 (the account of the nation's fear) as having preceded the pronouncement of the Commandments, as it parallels Moshe's description in Sefer Devarim of what transpired before the pronouncement:
I was standing in between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the Lord's word, because you were afraid of the fire and did not ascend the mountain – saying:
And Moshe approached… Have no fear… The nation stood from afar…
In summary, according to our proposal, God ultimately did not speak to the nation, and spoke only to Moshe, due to the people's fear, as explicitly described in Devarim. The verses leave two points unclear:
A) The introductory verse to the Ten Commandments does not clarify to whom God speaks;
B) It is unclear whether Moshe granted the people's request that he serve as intermediary, or simply assuaged their fears.
We can explain this ambiguity according to the two levels that exist in the description inSefer Devarim. The Torah wishes to convey the message that, fundamentally, the Ten Commandments were indeed said at Ma'amad Har Sinai to the entire nation. Factually speaking, this did not happen, and the nation instead stood from afar. The ambiguity in the description enables us to accept both premises: on the one hand, the Commandments were proclaimed to the people (again, this is the impression given by the flow of the narrative, without being mentioned explicitly), while at the same time, the people were frightened and therefore God did not speak to them.
Chazal's distinction between the first two and final eight Commandments, while not accommodating the simple reading of the verses, beautifully expresses the theory we have proposed. God indeed spoke to the people, but He spoke very little, perhaps just enough to confirm the occurrence of revelation. That small amount that He spoke contained the expression of "Anokhi" and its derivative prohibition – "You shall have no other gods" – but no more. Anything considered a mitzva that does not necessarily flow from the actual knowledge of revelation was said – according to Chazal – by Moshe, and not by God.
In this same fashion we can perhaps explain the awkward sequence of the verses. If the nation's request indeed preceded the Commandments, why does the Torah present it later? We may suggest two answers:
- In light of what we said earlier, we might similarly explain that the Torah seeks to create the impression that the Commandments were indeed proclaimed directly to the people from God, an impression that would not have emerged had the nation's request been recorded before the Commandments. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe achieves this goal by employing contradictory descriptions (verses 4-5, as explained above).
- Presenting the nation's concerns before the Commandments would have made the narrative incomprehensible. It would be impossible for the Torah to tell of God's requests that Moshe warn the people not to ascend the mountain if at that moment the nation flees. Placing the commandments in between these events gives the impression of a distance in time that is necessary for the cohesiveness of the narrative.
Of course, in the truth of the matter this difficulty is indeed very troubling. God's instruction to Moshe to warn the people appears to contradict the description of the nation's fears, and also appears to undermine our approach.
To resolve this difficulty, let us address another angle that we have yet to consider. Throughout the entirety of chapter 19, the Torah refers to God with the divine Name of Havaya("Y-H-V-H"). When recording God's words and actions, it employs only this Name, the Name in which God appeared to Moshe during the story of the Exodus. For example (we will employ the term Hashem to represent the Name Havaya): "Hashem calls to him from the mountain"; "All thatHashem spoke, we will do"; "the nation's words to Hashem"; "Hashem said"; "because Hashemhad descended upon it with fire." In all these instances, the Torah employs specifically the divine Name of Havaya.
In the first section of chapter 20 (through verse 18), by contrast, God is referred to as either Elokim or Hashem Elokim: "Elokim spoke"; "Let not Elokim speak with us"; "it was in order to test you that Elokim has come"; "entered the mist, where Elokim was." In the Ten Commandments themselves, the reference to Hashem Elokim appears quite frequently: "Anokhi Hashem Elokekha"; "ki Hashem Elokekha"; "Shabbat le-Hashem Elokekha," etc.
Very often, a shift in the terms used in reference to the Almighty indicates that the Torah addresses the given subject from different perspectives and even tells the same story from two different viewpoints. In these instances, we have two parallel descriptions of a single event, told from two differing perspectives.
It would seem that here, too, the story of Matan Torah contains two different, concurrent processes. The beginning of the narrative, in chapter 19, includes both perspectives. God here declares two things: the establishment of a covenant between Him and the people, with the condition of "if you keep My covenant"; and, His plan to reveal Himself to Moshe, in order for the people to listen and believe in Moshe's prophecy, through which the Torah will be given and regarding which God said earlier, "If you indeed heed My voice…"
This description includes both the instruction to create a boundary around the mountain, and the fact that "All the people in the camp trembled." Verse 18 describes God's revelation: "Mount Sinai was entirely in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it with fire… Moshe would speak, and God would answer him in a voice." In effect, the revelation reaches its peak at this point. Nowhere until this point has the Torah led us to anticipate that God will turn to the nation and speak to them; and if we read only the verses written with the divine Name of Havaya, this in fact never occurs.
The sequence of the events, according to the perspective of the Name Havaya, is as follows: God descends upon the mountain, Moshe speaks, and the voice of God responds from behind him like an echo. It seems that the people hear actual speech only from Moshe, but an echo-sound of the Shekhina creates the impression that indeed God's word is in his mouth, as if God speaks with them. Some time thereafter, God tells Moshe to descend from the mountain and issue a warning, the reason being, presumably, that this communication would last for quite some time, such that even if the people were initially frightened, they are now right beneath the mountain ("Moshe brought the nation to greet God from the camp, and they took their place beneath the mountain"), and the moment they grow accustomed and the initial shock subsides, they may burst forth and ascend towards God.
Moshe ultimately comes down the mountain and issues this warning to the nation, as it says, "Moshe descended to the people and said to them." The Torah does not clarify what he said to the people, because it is self-understood. (Recall that the narrative continues with "God spoke" and the Ten Commandments, but according to our suggested approach, this is not the chronological continuation.) Thus, the nation hears from Moshe what God had commanded him, and Moshe returns to the top of the mountain to hear God's words to him, which apparently no longer are said with sounds and lightening, but rather from a mist (this once again reinforces the concern that the people might seek to ascend the mountain). God then immediately begins speaking to Moshe: "The Lord said to Moshe, 'So shall you say to Benei Yisrael: You have seen that I spoke with you from the heavens. Do not make with me gods of silver or gods of gold…'" This verse refers not to the Ten Commandments, but rather to what is written before the Commandments: "Moshe would speak and God would answer in a voice." It was therefore necessary to command the people not to fashion gold or silver images. According to the sequence of the Torah's presentation, this command unnecessarily repeats the second of the Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, any image…" Meaning: the mitzvotare said only to Moshe. But once the people witnessed that God speaks to Moshe, anything that Moshe tells them subsequently will be regarded as God's direct word to the nation. It must again be emphasized that according to the narrative using only the Name of Havaya, the primary concern involved the prospect of the nation's ascent to the mountain upon the conclusion of the main event, where Moshe speaks and God answers him in a voice; this event does not include the Ten Commandments at all.
If we read the continuation of chapter 19 according to the verses employing the divine Name of Elokim (20:1-18), a different picture emerges. After the nation sees the sounds and torches, they are frightened and do not want God to speak to them directly. Why were they afraid of God's direct communication? It appears that their fear stemmed from what God said, "If you indeed heed My voice…" They anticipate hearing God's command, but are concerned that He might issue it to them directly. Moshe understood their concerns and calmed their fears, and they then retreated and stood at a distance (20:18), while Moshe approached the mist and heard God proclaim the Ten Commandments. According to this presentation, the Ten Commandments were indeed proclaimed at this point, but only to Moshe, and not to the people.
The two parallel accounts, told with two different Names of God, express two different, otherwise self-contained perspectives on what transpired.
According to the narrative employing the Name Havaya, the Revelation's primary objective, as stated, is establishing the belief in Moshe's prophecy. To this end, the Ten Commandments are unnecessary. The moment the nation is convinced and believes, God speaks to Moshe alone and conveys to him the mitzvot mentioned at the end of the parasha(regarding the altar) and in Parashat Mishpatim.
The divine Name of Havaya always expresses the notion of prophecy and closeness to God, and indeed the primary objective here is to firmly establish the prophecy of Moshe, and the primary concern is that the sense of closeness to God felt during this event will result in the nation's desire to approach God. The quality of closeness and love of God can also be destructive, and there is thus the need for boundaries and warnings.
According to the narrative using the Name of Elokim, the Ten Commandments indeed stand at the center of this event, but, as mentioned, they are said only to Moshe, and not to the people. The reason for this is different from the reason in the previous story, in which the purpose of Ma'amad Har Sinai is from the outset purely to affirm the belief in Moshe's prophecy. In the story as told in the Name of Elokim, the purpose of the Revelation is in fact the establishment of a covenant regarding the words of God: "Now, if you indeed heed My voice and observe My covenant…" The Ten Commandments form the basis of this covenant; the covenant depends on their observance. According to what is told from the perspective of the Name ofElokim, God had, in fact, intended to speak directly to the people, but their fear and request to stand back resulted in Moshe's serving as intermediary to convey to them God's word. Indeed, the Name Elokim always signifies the notion of justice and covenant.
The development of fear among the people likewise accommodates the Name Elokim. The revelation of Elokim is a source of fear – a concept closely related to the Name Elokim. The nation is distanced, and this distance remains even at the end of Ma'amad Har Sinai.
Moshe Rabbenu serves a moderating role with respect to both perspectives. He is responsible to prevent a destructive outburst of love, from the perspective of Havaya, and he likewise faces the task of assuaging the nation's fear and assuring them that God does not wish upon them evil, and has rather revealed Himself "in order that His fear be upon you, so that you do not sin."
In conclusion, let us consider the meaning of the story as it appears before us in the Torah, and ask what is expressed by the end result.
According to what we have seen, the story of Matan Torah has two different objectives, which determine the narrative's progression and are expressed through the use of the two divine Names of Havaya and Elokim.
The focal point of the first objective is the covenant which is based upon Am Yisrael's commitment to obey the divine command, which after the fact means fulfilling the Commandments. This objective is expressed with the Name Elokim.
The second objective has as its central feature the Revelation itself, which becomes the source of unwavering belief in Moshe's prophecy, rather than the word of God. This objective is expressed with the Name Havaya.
According to the first, the Revelation instills fear into the people. Fear plays a central role in the establishment of the covenant: "So that you do not sin." But fear also has a distancing effect: "The nation stood from afar." The Commandments therefore are not spoken to the people directly from God, and are merely considered as having come directly from God; this is their legal stature.
According to the second objective, the Revelation arouses love. Love finds expression in the transmission of the divine word to Moshe, and in allowing the opportunity to serve God and earn the merit of His revelation and blessing: "You shall make for Me an earthen altar and sacrifice upon it… Everywhere I mention My Name I shall come to you and bless you." The danger inherent in love of God is excessive closeness, and one must therefore exercise restraint and maintain a degree of distance.
The story as presented before us bridges between these two ideal possibilities. Theoretically, each story could be told separately, but practically, it all occurs simultaneously. The Almighty and His Names are all one, and thus His revelation includes all the objectives and generates both love and fear. It stands to reason that the nation's reactions to the Revelation were mixed and included the desire to both escape from and run towards it. The Torah is not interested in presenting a detailed account of what transpired among each group in the nation or in the heart of each and every individual. Rather, it seeks to give the essential message, and hence the arrangement in which the story is told, which synthesizes the two separate progressions:
The two objectives of the Revelation are described in chronological sequence at the beginning of chapter 19, one following the other:
- First – the establishment of the covenant.
- Second – "and also they will believe in you forever."
Thereafter begins the Revelation (God's descent onto the mountain, in verse 18), and the Torah then chooses to describe specifically the concern of overabundant closeness, which is entirely true – from one perspective. The concern for excessive closeness obviously does not negate God's revelation and speech, and God is therefore described as the one proclaiming the Commandments, such that one could conclude that they are proclaimed to the entire nation. This is not a misguided reading, but rather the correct conclusion in principle. Only after the proclamation of the Commandments does the Torah mention the problem that arose from theElokim perspective of Revelation – the fear that gripped the people. This is indeed a worthwhile problem that plays an important role in forging a complete, religious relationship to God and His revelation, which is indeed complex and dialectical. The description of this problem before the proclamation of the Commandments could have potentially diminished the force of the covenant, the essence of which entails the fulfillment of God's commands. The Torah presented this in such a way that would lend the Ten Commandment its status as the very basis of our covenant with God, and hence the importance of their having been proclaimed specifically by God Himself.
For the purpose of summation and added depth:
I once saw a remark cited in the name of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Raminov concerning the enlarged letter alef in the word Anokhi with which the Ten Commandments begin. He commented that only the alef was heard by the people. The alef represents the voice that marks the very beginning of the utterance. According to this remark, only the endless, undefined voice is what was heard directly from the Almighty. The constriction of that sound into actual words, in the sense of a "utensil" lending the sound shape and form, belongs strictly to the realm of prophecy.
A similar concept, albeit serving different interests, was expressed by the Rambam, inMoreh Nevukhim (2:33):
It is clear to me that what Moshe experienced at the Revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moshe alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moshe then went down to the foot of the mount and told his fellow-men what he had heard. Comp., "I stood between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord" (Devarim 5:5). Again, "Moshe would speak, and God would answer him with a voice" (Shemot 19:19). In the Mekhilta our Sages say distinctly that he brought to them every word as he had heard it. Furthermore, the words, "in order that the nation hear when I speak with you" (Shemot 19:9), show that God spoke to Moshe, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage, "When you hear the sound" (Devarim5:20); again it is stated, "You heard a sound of words" (Devarim 4:12), and it is not said "You heard words"; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant. It was only Moshe that heard the words, and he reported them to the people. This is apparent from Scripture, and from the utterances of our Sages in general. There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the Midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moshe, and not through Moshe. For these two principles, the existence of God and His unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. Comp., "You have been shown to know that," etc. (Devarim 4:34). But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect. Notwithstanding all that has been said by our Sages on this subject, we infer from Scripture as well as from the words of our Sages, that the Israelites heard on that occasion a certain sound which Moshe understood to proclaim the first two commandments, and through Moshe all other Israelites learnt them when he in intelligible sounds repeated them to the people. Our Sages mention this view, and support it by the verse, "God has spoken once; twice have I heard this" (Tehillim 62:12). They state distinctly, in the beginning of Midrash Chazit, that the Israelites did not hear any other command directly from God; comp. "A loud voice, and it was not heard again" (Devarim5:19). It was after this first sound was heard that the people were seized with the fear and terror described in Scripture, and that they said, "Behold the Lord our God has shown us, etc., and now why shall we die, etc. You come near," etc. Then Moshe, the most distinguished of all mankind, came the second time, received successively the other commandments, and came down to the foot of the mountain to proclaim them to the people, whilst the mighty phenomena continued; they saw the fire, they heard the sounds, which were those of thunder and lightening during a storm, and the loud sound of the shofar; and all that is said of the many sounds heard at that time, e.g., in the verse, "and all the people saw the sounds," etc., refers to the sound of the shofar, thunder and similar sounds. But the voice of the Lord, that is, the voice created for that purpose, which was understood to include the diverse commandments, was only heard once, as is declared in the Torah, and has been clearly stated by our Sages in the places which I have indicated to you. When the people heard this voice their soul left them; and in this voice they perceived the first two commandments.
1. The story of creation, for example, is described one way in the first chapter of Bereishit, which refers to God as Elokim, and in a much different way in the second chapter, where the Name Havaya is used.
2. God-willing, we will have opportunity in the future to explain how they find independent expression in God's various comments to Moshe; in this context, we will take the entire section until verse 19 as a single unit.
3. According to what we are saying here, we must explain the verse later, in chapter 24, "He [Moshe] told the people all the words of God and all the laws." According to what we said earlier, "all the laws" refers to the laws presented in Parashat Mishpatim, and "all the words of God" refers to the Ten Commandments. What, then, are "the words of God" if not the Ten Commandments? This is not the context for an elaborate discussion of this question; we will simply point out the Torah's narrative in Shemot 35, after the renewal of the covenant that followed God's forgiveness of the people for the Sin of the Calf. According to the plain meaning of the text, "divrei Hashem" could refer to sections that do not deal with legal issues, namely, the first and final sections of the "Sefer Ha-berit," which includes 20:19-23 and chapters 21-23.