(15) All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.
(16) “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”
(17) Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.”
(18) So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.
(15) As noted earlier, a discrepancy arises in some printed editions of the Torah in the numbering of the verses in this passage through the end of the chapter, because of differences in versification (dividing the text into verses) between alternate cantillation systems in use for the Ten Commandments. In this book, however, for the reader’s convenience and for the sake of clarity we consistently follow the versification of the “lower cantillation” – in the Hebrew original, the English translation, and our commentary.
(15) The people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance: Instead of “they fell back,” an alternate translation of va-yanu’u is “they trembled.” The Revelation has not caused jubilation among the people. Quite the contrary, the people are afraid, and ask that an intermediary be appointed. The people are not yet ready to realize their mission as “a kingdom of priests.” Apparently, this is a consequence of God’s having “rushed” to bring the Jews out of slavery ahead of time.
(16) “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die”: When God communicates with a human being, it is natural for that person to experience a premonition of death.
We find a clear example of this when an angel of God appeared to Manoah and his wife, Samson’s parents. “Manoah said to his wife, ‘We shall surely die, for we have seen a divine being.’ ” (Jud. 13:22). The alluring sweetness of the higher worlds attracts a person and draws him into himself. Mysticism is inseparable from the thirst for self-destruction, and for dissolution in the Absolute.
But the Torah and Jewish mysticism are “the teachings of life,” not death. From the Jewish viewpoint, all of human history is preparation for the possibility of “seeing God and remaining alive.” This Messianic level of contact with God has now been revealed to the people during the giving of the Torah at Sinai, but they are not yet ready for it. They therefore ask Moses to serve as mediator between them and God.
(17) For God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray: As we have explained previously, the Hebrew root N‑S‑H can mean either to test, or to elevate (lit., to raise as a banner). In this verse too, an alternate translation is “For God has come only in order to elevate you.”
When a person achieves a new level of spiritual elevation, his understanding of the greatness of the Almighty increases, with the result that his awe of God and his fear of doing wrong also increase. This is the meaning of our verse: “For God has come only in order to elevate you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray” (lit., “so that you will not sin”).
(18) Moses approached the thick cloud where God was: Divinity is always obscured in haze.