The impact of Sinai

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 20:48

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The holiday of Shavuot commemorates what is arguably the defining moment in the history of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Jewish people, upon receipt of the Torah, became the Chosen People, their identity changed forever. There is, of course, more to the story. When we turn to the event as portrayed in the Torah itself, we see another important feature, and a deeper level of understanding reveals to us just how singular this occurrence was.

After the initial revelation by God (whether it was the first two commandments or all Ten Commandments is subject to debate among the commentaries), a powerful exchange takes place between Moshe and the Jewish people (Shemos 20:15-16):

“And they said unto Moses: 'Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear not; for God is come to prove (nasot) you, and that His fear may be before you, that you sin not.'”

Moshe’s response to the plea of the Jewish people is difficult to understand. How exactly is he assuaging their concerns? Regardless of the specifics of his answer, we see that after this point, Moshe became the intermediary between God and the Jewish people in the transmission of the commandments. One can deduce from this that whatever the merits of his answer, there was no longer a direct transmission between God and the Jewish people.

What exactly is the nature of Moshe’s response? There is a debate among the different commentaries as to the meaning of his statement; the Ramban recounts some of them, and brings his own opinion as well. He focuses (20:17) on the meaning of the word “nasot”, as the literal definition is unclear. Rashi understands this word to mean that through God’s communication to the Jewish people, their name will becomes great among the nations of the world, being that He in His glory revealed Himself to them.

According to Rashi, then, the nasot has a connotation of “exalted”, and he brings numerous proofs to support his position. The Ramban initially disagrees with this explanation, and offers his own view. He writes that the purpose of God’s communication was to get the Jewish people “accustomed” to believing in God. Once the Jewish people experienced this revelation, the belief in God entered into their minds, to “cleave to Him” where their “souls will never be separated from it forever”.

Before continuing, we must reflect on the incomprehensibility of these two opinions. According to Rashi, why is it important that the reputation of the Jewish people be enhanced among the nations of the world? The Ramban’s position is no clearer – why is he referring to the Jewish people becoming “accustomed” to belief in God? It is not as though revelations to the entire Jewish nation were going to be a regular occurrence.

The Ramban continues, shifting to a more traditional interpretation of nasot. He quotes the Rambam from the Moreh Nevuchim, where he writes that God in fact was using this communication as a test (this being the classical definition). What kind of test?

According to the Rambam, this test would be one to occur in the future. When a false prophet would attempt to “reverse that which you have heard, your steps will never slide from the way of truth, for you have seen the truth with your own eyes.” The Ramban rejects this view, offering a different concept of test. Per the Ramban, this test is one for the present rather than the future. In essence, Moshe was telling the Jewish people that God would now test the Jewish people to see if they will keep His commandments, as all doubt was removed from their hearts. The Ramban concludes, explaining how indeed this type of test could be most beneficial to the Jewish people.

The Rambam’s position is extremely difficult to fathom. What type of test is this exactly? The communication was not the test, and it is theoretically possible the test will never occur, as it is dependent on the ideological attack of the false prophet. And according to the Ramban, the test is one that, if taken literally, resulted in a quick failure by the Jewish people, evidenced in their turn to the golden calf. What is his idea?

It might be possible to divide the positions up into two overall categories. There are those who maintain that nasot was not referring to a test, and those who rely on the more traditional understanding. How do we understand this overall debate? The most recognizable manifestation of the revelation at Sinai was the transmission of the Torah to us, the Jewish people.

Yet there were other pivotal features to this monumental event. There is the fact that God communicated with a nation of people, a communication unlike any other in the history of the universe. This unique communication is something that would have a profound effect on the nation. Another feature was the fact that the information, the Torah, itself was transmitted in this exclusive manner, giving it a degree of unchallenged authenticity. While it is true the entire Torah was not given in this way (two or ten commandments), once these original ones were communicated in this manner, Moshe’s position as the intermediary between God and the nation became the equivalent, in terms of veracity, as coming directly from God.

In other words, the Jewish people viewed the commandments communicated from God through Moshe as being a primary, rather than secondary, receiving of information (more on this later). The key point here is that God chose to transmit the Torah in this direct way.

With this basic categorization in place, we can turn to a more detailed understanding of the different positions. Rashi views nasot as the increase in the name of the Jewish people amongst the other nations of the world. Why is this important? When studying Judaism, the rational arguments for the existence of God and the veracity of the religion are compelling. However, it seems these are not enough when facing ideological threats and challenges. The fact that the Jewish people, a nation at the time of over a million people, engaged in a communication directly with God, by definition serves as a differentiating quality between us and them. When faced with ideological challenges, the clear knowledge of the reality of this event will serve as an effective counter to the other nations. The ideological stature of the nation will be solidified amongst the other religions.

Rather than the purpose of the communication being to create a unique identity amid the other nations, the Ramban sees the phenomenon as one affecting the Jewish people themselves (and us today) in an insightful way. It is interesting that he sees a onetime event as “accustoming” the Jewish people to a certain quality of belief. However, when dealing with a permanent embedding of a fundamental idea, “accustoming” indeed is the appropriate term. God’s communication would serve as a bulwark within the ideology, a further strengthening of the belief in God. Again, there are rational proofs for the existence of God. Concurrently, there is this event, this transmission, which when internalized and reflected upon, led to a different quality of belief. Therefore, according to the Ramban, God communicated with the people to ensure that they would possess this type of belief as well.

Turning to the last two opinions, we see a shift in the overall approach. As we mentioned above, these two final opinions seem to be focusing on the fact that the information was transmitted in this unique manner, rather than the fact that God spoke directly to the Jewish people.

Let’s now apply this to understanding the position of the Rambam. He explains how this was a test for the future, as the Jewish people would be able to deal with the false prophet. What exactly does he mean? One of the most important effects of the material transmitted directly from God to the Jewish people is that the entire Torah took on a character of being primary information, rather than secondary information (alluded to before). When one reads a history book, he is learning about material from another source; the reader did not witness or experience the event, thus earning the “secondary” moniker. Yet if someone witnessed the actual event, it is related to as a “primary” transmission of information – future generations treat it as if they were there themselves (and, according to the Ramban, it is a mitzvah to teach this event from generation to generation).

The information itself takes on a reality that separates it from being a historical event. This reality is crucial when dealing with the false prophet. He will challenge the truth of the Torah, suggesting that God told him to change the commandment from forbidden to permitted. Yet he can never reach the same degree of veracity as the event at Sinai, nor as the prophecy of Moshe. The fact the Torah was given in such a distinct way creates a natural obstacle to any possible argument made by the false prophet. Therefore, the test is really the possible opportunity for the Jewish people to be able to appropriately disavow the false prophet.

We come now to the Ramban’s “second” opinion, where he maintains that this is a test for the present. How do we understand this test? The system of Torah and Jewish Law is one that allows the mind to engage in the study of God, to follow His ways and live a life in line with reality. Yet the idea of controlling one’s instincts, being subservient to a system, is sometimes difficult to tolerate on a psychological level.

As we know, the Midrash tells us God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people, in a sense forcing them to accept the Torah. What this actually means (it is unlikely God actually “held” the mountain over their heads) is that the psyche is not naturally conditioned to this type of system. Our instincts yearn to escape, and we search for “excuses” to violate commandments and give in to our emotions. There had to be a “push” to allow for the overcoming of the natural resistances to the system.

One common tactic involves questioning the authenticity of the corpus of the system. If there is even a hint to the veracity of the Torah, doubt enters the picture, and the excuse to give in to the instincts becomes apparent. Since the Torah was given in this unique manner, the ability to make use of this line of questioning becomes much weaker. The test then is not on the complete dedication to the system. Instead, it is focusing on how the Jewish people, when faced with the challenge of performance of the commandments, will be able to avoid falling into this trap.

Returning to our initial question, it becomes clearer as to how Moshe’s answer was sufficient. After being exposed to this communication, which was unlike anything else mankind has experienced, the Jewish people were shell shocked. They were overcome, unable to fully grasp the purpose of this communication. They knew one thing – they could not re-enter into this communication. Moshe therefore tries to explain to them how this transmission served a dual purpose, for the immediate and for the future.

As such, one can see how the event at Sinai encompassed more than the giving of the Torah. Whether the communication itself or what was transmitted, the Jewish people’s relationship to both God and the Torah took on a whole new dimension.