Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot’ — co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As the dramatic moment of Revelation approaches, thunder and lightning break forth, a thick cloud envelops Mount Sinai, and a powerful, rising shofar blast is heard.
Against this backdrop, God summons Moshe to the summit of Mount Sinai, where the following dialogue takes place:
God: “Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to God to see, and many of them will fall…”
Moshe: “The people cannot ascend Mount Sinai, for You have testified to us, ‘Create a boundary around the mountain and sanctify it.’ ”
God: “Go, descend! And then you shall ascend – you and Aharon with you. But the priests and the people shall not break through to ascend to God, lest He burst forth against them.”
No sooner does Moshe descend the mountain and deliver God’s message, than Revelation begins.
How are we to understand the puzzling dialogue that unfolds between Moshe and God, on the summit of Mount Sinai, in the direct shadow of Matan Torah?
Why does God summon Moshe to the summit of Mount Sinai, only to immediately command him to again go down and issue to the Israelites a warning which they have already received?
Why is the reiteration of this warning of hagbala necessary in the first place? If it is necessary, why doesn’t God direct Moshe to transmit it to the people without – seemingly needlessly – ascending and descending the mountain?
When Moshe objects that the people have already been warned, why doesn’t God answer substantively? He simply seems to offer the frustrating response (which children so often hear with chagrin from their parents):
Do it because I told you so!
God promises that Moshe will ascend the mountain again, together with Aharon, apparently to experience Revelation. Yet, no sooner does Moshe go down and deliver God’s message to the nation, than God, seemingly without warning, launches into the Ten Declarations and begins the process of Revelation. In our mind’s eye, we can almost picture Moshe running towards the mountain, frantically waving and shouting: Wait! Don’t start without me! I’m supposed to be up there!
Some authorities maintain, in spite of the textual evidence to the contrary, that Moshe does ascend Mount Sinai again before Revelation commences. Other scholars, however, accept the pshat of the text placing this great leader at the foot of the mountain as God begins to speak to the people. For these commentaries, the question remains: why does God orchestrate Moshe’s movements preparatory to Revelation in such a strange way?
A number of interesting interpretive twists are proposed by the commentaries as they struggle to explain the interchange between God and Moshe on the summit of Mount Sinai.
The Ohr Hachaim, for example, suggests that God reiterates the warning of hagbala because He is concerned over the nation’s potential for religious zeal. Perhaps the people will arrive at the erroneous conclusion that the heightened religious experience of a close encounter with the divine is worth the cost of their lives. They will, therefore, deliberately cross the forbidden perimeter around Sinai in search of spiritual ecstasy. To forestall this possibility, God instructs Moshe to clearly inform the Israelites that such “religious escapism” is not what God wants. The people’s role is, instead, to live in and sanctify the physical world.
The Rashbam, wrestling as always with the pshat of the text, suggests that Moshe does not object when God commands him to reiterate the warning to the people. It is, after all, natural to issue multiple warnings as a critical moment approaches.
Moshe, instead, questions whether the rules have now changed:
Originally, Lord, You commanded the people not to ascend the mountain. Now, however, You instruct me to tell the nation not to “break through and see.”
Am I to tell them that even viewing from afar is forbidden?
God assures Moshe that the rules have not changed. The people are only prohibited from “ascending to God.”
While the Ibn Ezra agrees with the approach of the Rashbam, he also records a fascinating quote in the name of Rav Saadia Gaon. The Gaon maintains that for years he pondered and yet never understood Moshe’s rejoinder to God: “The people cannot ascend Mount Sinai, for You have testified to us…” Is Moshe, wondered the Gaon, really objecting to a direct order from God?
Then, however, the Gaon happened upon an edict recorded in the book of traditions of the Persian kings. This rule states that a king’s messenger is not permitted to say “I have done your bidding” to the king, until the messenger is commanded to another task. Now that God has told Moshe to speak again to the people, Moshe can safely respond: Lord, I obeyed Your first instructions and the people have been properly warned, as You commanded.
Moshe’s rejoinder to God is, thus, not an objection but a report.
How telling that Saadia Gaon considers Persian etiquette an acceptable source for the illumination of a biblical passage!
None of the above approaches, however, addresses why God would command Moshe to ascend and descend the mountain, seemingly without reason. Nor do these scholars explain why God suddenly commences Revelation once Moshe has come down the mountain, without allowing him the opportunity to ascend Mount Sinai again.
A surprising answer to these questions is offered in the Midrash Rabba.
With striking candor, the Midrash entertains the notion that God’s instructions to Moshe at this critical juncture might actually be “busy work” motivated by an external concern. God is concerned that if Moshe is present at the summit of Mount Sinai at the time of the transmission of the Ten Declarations, the Israelites will be uncertain as to whether the law actually emanates from God or from Moshe, from a divine or a human source. God therefore directs Moshe to descend Mount Sinai and once again warn the people, even though (as this great leader himself maintains) that warning is unnecessary. In this way, God ensures that Moshe is at the foot of the mountain as Revelation commences, and that the divine origin of the law is clear.
A final, entirely different approach can be suggested to the strange sequence of events before us.
God wants Moshe himself to learn a critical lesson that will speak to the underpinnings of leadership throughout Jewish history: At the onset of revelation, Moshe, your place is with the people at the base of Mount Sinai. There will be a time when you will again ascend the mountain, a time when your leadership role will raise you above the nation. Now, however, your place is with them, learning the very lessons of hagbala that they are learning.
Remember always that true leadership is marked by connection to the people. You must rise to leadership from their midst.
As with other important lessons in Moshe’s life, however, God does not convey the message directly; He wants Moshe to learn the lesson on his own
God’s methods thus become clear in retrospect: When I told you to go down the mountain, Moshe; when I commanded you to reiterate the warning to remain at the mountain base; when I refused to explain Myself; when I manipulated your presence at the base of Mount Sinai during the onset of Revelation – it was because this time, Moshe, I was speaking to you!
I wanted you to come to realize on your own that, at the most critical moment of your nation’s history, your place is with your people; that the rules which apply to them apply to you; that you must always be connected to those
who are entrusted to your care.
Learn these lessons well, Moshe, and your leadership will endure.