18.2. The People Prepare for the Giving of the Torah (19:7-15)
(7) Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him.
(8) All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.
(9) And the Lord 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 the Lord,
(10) and the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes.
(11) Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.
(12) You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death:
(13) no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.”
(14) Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes.
(15) And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”
(7) Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him: These new ideas now take the people completely by surprise. They thought they were just returning to their Land, but now it turns out that there is a special Divine doctrine involved, and also a unique mission for them to fulfill with respect to the rest of humanity.
Moses is afraid to make such a radical proposal to the entire nation, so he turns to the elders first to enlist their support.
(8) All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”: It is not the elders, however, who answer Moses, but all the people. In a situation that entails a drastic change in long-held ideas and beliefs, the common people show that they are more ready to go along with that than even the elite of the previous era were.
And yet, although their words appear to indicate full consent, they also have a condition that they wish to stipulate, as we shall see in the very next verse.
(9) And the Lord said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud”: The Divine light is so intense that it is impossible to perceive it directly, just as it is impossible to look directly at the sun without going blind. To receive that light, one needs a dimming filter. The thick cloud serves just this purpose.
In order that the people may hear when I speak with you: After the people are given the opportunity to hear directly what God will say to Moses, they will feel convinced that Moses really does receive his instructions from God.
And so trust you ever after: We can infer from the words “and so trust you ever after” that until now the Jews did not fully trust Moses. Thus, their affirmation “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (v. 8) should not be understood as a generalized promise (“Just tell us what to do, and we will do it, whatever it is”), but only in a restricted sense: “We will fulfill everything that the Lord says, but not what you say in His name, because it is impossible to know whether these are really God’s words, or just your own ideas.” For that reason, later God will have to address the entire nation directly.
The Jewish idea that the entire nation as one witnessed the Revelation is unique in the religious history of mankind. In Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religious systems, at first only one person receives the ultimate truth, or a divine revelation, and he then teaches that truth to everyone else. In contrast, the giving of the Torah was addressed directly to one and all, which means that the entire nation rose at that moment to the level of prophecy. This is a very important distinction between the tenets of Judaism and the conceptions of other world religions.
The Torah presents the revelation at Sinai in these terms, i.e., that God revealed Himself (and gave the Torah) to the entire nation as a whole, precisely because the Jews are a stubborn and incredulous people, and would not agree to receive the Torah through Moses. God chose as his emissaries to humanity not people who are ready to believe with no hesitation whatsoever, but a skeptical, stubborn, incredulous people.
(10) And the Lord said to Moses, Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes: The people need three days of preparation by which to approach God with measured steps; a hasty, unprepared ascent will only be destructive. The path to God must be gradual, so that a person who ascends to holiness always retains his full independence during the entire process.
(11) Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai: This will not be an individual event, but a Revelation for the entire nation.
(12) You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: In preparing for holiness a person must set boundaries for himself even in the matter of the goal of the holiness itself. At each stage he must limit his mystical desire to advance to the Almighty, until he is sufficiently prepared to take the next step.
(13) No hand shall touch him: There is a certain symbolism here. A person who violates God’s instructions by touching the mountain will be killed without anyone’s hand touching him.
But he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live: The generation that left Egypt after a long period of slavery must be intimidated and threatened with severe punishment. Otherwise, they will not have the mental acuity to fully comprehend the gravity of what is happening.
When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain: After the preparations are complete, ascending the mountain will be allowed. This “preliminary restriction” is akin to the restriction that was placed on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, forbidding them at first to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In this sense, observing a three-day separation from Mount Sinai is, as it were, a correction of Adam’s haste.
(14) Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes: The washing of the clothes too was the fulfillment of a Divine instruction (v. 10).
(15) And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman”: It is clear that the meaning of this restriction is that a person must renounce the passions and ordinary concerns of the material world when preparing for prophecy. But God’s instructions above (v. 10-13) placed no restriction on the people regarding physical contact with their wives. This verse gives the impression that this additional restriction was Moses’ own addition. The aspect of separation from one’s wife for communicating with God is especially important to Moses.
In our commentary to Numbers (ch. 12) we will discuss the matter of Moses’ separation from his wife in greater detail.