(16) On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
(17) Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.
(18) Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
(19) The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.
(20) The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.
(21) The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish.
(22) The priests also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure, lest the Lord break out against them.”
(23) But Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’ ”
(24) So the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them.”
(25) And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.
(16) On the third day: The third day of the people’s “separation” is the sixth day of the third month since the Exodus, or fifty days after leaving Egypt.
(16-19) On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn … Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke … and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder: In the story of the prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, which Tradition sees as reprising the giving of the Torah, the Almighty’s presence is described as follows:
“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And lo, the Lord passed by.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind — an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound.
(1 Kings 19:11-12)
Based on this passage, the Midrash states that the words of the Revelation at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, were uttered in silence.
The heralds trumpet deafeningly before the arrival of the king, but when the king finally arrives, everything quiesces. And so it is here: The crescendo of the shofar creates a contrast between the din of the preparations and the “soft murmuring sound” of the actual Revelation.
(17) Moses led the people out of the camp toward God: In order to come close to God, one must leave the “camp.”
And they took their places at the foot of the mountain: A very literal rendering of be-tachtit ha-har would be “on the underside of the mountain.” The Midrash, which understands this as meaning that they were actually standing under the mountain, describes it this way: “The Almighty suspended the mountain precariously over them, and told them: If you accept the Torah, everything will be fine. But if not, Sinai will become your gravesite.” So the giving of the Torah at Sinai was achieved by coercion.
This midrash should not be taken literally, of course. This coercion was not a simple physical coercion. When such great Revelation occurred, the power of the Disclosure of Divinity was so strong and so obvious that all those present were deprived of their freedom of choice and accepted the Torah. It was simply impossible to deny the obvious.
Yet it was still coercion, and it was not ideal that giving of Torah was achieved by pressure. Our midrash continues, referring to the days of Mordechai and Esther, that after deliverance in the Purim story, the Jews once again accepted the Torah, but this time by their own free will.
This midrash intends to link the completion of the giving of the Torah with the completion of the writing of the Tanakh. The book of Esther is logically considered the last book of the Tanakh. It makes no mention of God, nor recounts miraculous events, for which reasons, inter alia, the book of Esther can be seen as a bridge to the post-Tanakh (post-biblical) era. Thus, the statement that “they again accepted the Torah in the days of Mordechai and Esther” really means “at the very end of the Tanakh era.” The idea here is that a full national acceptance of the Divine teachings, impossible at the level of the Five Books of the Moses (the Torah) alone, can happen only with the acceptance of the entire Tanakh.
Because the Torah from Heaven, bestowed at Sinai, is too far removed from the thinking and disposition of ordinary human beings, its acceptance at the national level is initially possible only through some measure of coercion. Naturally, coercion creates resistance, but among the Jewish people this was countered by their willingness to accept the Torah in the manner originally expressed by the Patriarchs.
But the Torah is intended not only for the Jews, but for all mankind, and the peoples of the world did not give this initial consent. The Torah’s supernal and unapproachable nature, and the resistance to its teachings, were obstacles to its adoption.
However, as the Torah progressed through Jewish history, the Tanakh was created, integrating the heavenly Revelation with the flow of human history here on earth. That fusion of the Divine and the human was much easier to accept. At that point, the Jews could accept even such a Torah without coercion, which is the reason for its full adoption “in the days of Mordechai and Esther.”
Following their example, the nations of the world too could then accept the Tanakh, notwithstanding that they could not do so originally when the Torah was first given. This is what actually happened in the subsequent history of mankind.
(18) Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire: At the giving of the Torah, water (cloud), which symbolizes Chesed (“mercy”) and fire, symbolizing Gevurah (“severity, judgment”) were united. The combination of disparate elements, water and fire, is symbolic of the unification of Chesed and Gevurah as the Torah’s primary ethical objective. This concept, which originated with Abraham, now finds its expression in the giving of the Torah.
(19) The blare of the horn grew louder and louder: The Midrash explains: “The loudness gradually increased, because, as a person’s perception develops, he can hear more and more.”
As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder: The literal translation is “God answered him in a voice.” According to the Midrash, God answered Moses by strengthening Moses’ own voice.
(20-21) The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people”: All this is still only the preparation for the Revelation. Although the whole nation is now experiencing a state of prophecy, they must maintain distance, continuing to be themselves as distinct human entities, not succumbing to the temptation to become one with Divinity.
Not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish: The desire to “see God” is destructive.
(22) The priests also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure, lest the Lord break out against them: The “priests” here are the firstborns. Before the incident of the golden calf, it was they who served as priests.
(23) But Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’ ”: Moses believes that the people have accepted the prohibition.
(24) So the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them.”: The Almighty expresses doubt that Moses is correct, and says that the warning must be repeated.
Go down, and come back together with Aaron: This is a clarification of earlier instructions. During the actual giving of the Torah Moses must remain below, together with the people, in order to receive the Torah along with them. But after that, Moses and Aaron are allowed to ascend.
From the Torah’s account which follows, however, we know that after the giving of the Torah, only Moses ascended the mountain, while Aaron remained below with the people. Perhaps this exactly what led to the incident of the golden calf.
But let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them: Moses and Aaron are able to apprehend the Almighty’s presence on the mountain, but the firstborns and all the rest of the people cannot, which means it will only be destructive for them.
(25) And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them: He warned them yet again.
 See Genesis. 18:19, and Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §18.16.