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Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5779

Parashat Hashavua: More Things to Say about Devarim

Harav Yosef Carmel

The p’sukim that introduce the presentation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (Shemot 19:3-9) caused the commentaries to work very hard. The order is as follows: Moshe went up the mountain, where Hashem told him the significance of Bnei Yisrael accepting the Torah and becoming a special nation. Moshe told the elders the words (devarim) of Hashem. The nation accepted the matter and Moshe informed Hashem (pasuk 8). Hashem told Moshe that He would be coming to speak to him in front of the people so that the people would believe in Moshe. It ends off: “Moshe told (vayaged) the words of the nation to Hashem” (pasuk 9).

The difficulty we will deal with is that it says in pasuk 8 that Moshe told Hashem of the nation’s acceptance, and in pasuk 9 the nation does not speak again, but Moshe only received further information. Why then does it say again at the end of pasuk 9 that Moshe told Hashem the devarim of the nation?

Rashi says that the people had responded to the content of Hashem’s declaration that He would speak to Moshe, and they told Moshe that they wanted to “see Hashem,” i.e., have Hashem speak to them directly. Indeed, we see that Hashem respected this request, although it proved to be more difficult than they imagined.

Ibn Ezra goes in a totally different direction. He says that the p’sukim are out of order and that vayaged preceded the pasuk about Hashem speaking to Moshe through the cloud. What the people had said is that they did not believe that Hashem could speak to a person and he would survive. In fact, because of this belief, there were people in Egypt who did not believe that Hashem had spoken to Moshe. Pasuk 9 comes as a response to this problem. The people would see Hashem speak to Moshe. They would thus believe it was presently happening and also that it happened previously in Egypt.

The Ramban disputes the Ibn Ezra’s thesis strongly. He argues that Bnei Yisrael would not have doubted the concept of prophecy because they had a tradition about its existence from their recent ancestors, several of whom were themselves prophets. The Ramban understands this pasuk as Hashem’s desire that the people should not only have believed in prophecy but should experience being prophets themselves, even if only during ma’amad Har Sinai. He connects this to the repetition of the portrayal of these events in Devarim (4:10) in which it stresses that this would teach the people to fear Hashem “in all generations.”

The Ramban is based on the thesis that we have recently discussed that “devarim” refers to prophecy. The hearing of devarim was a once-in-history event in which a whole nation reached the level of prophecy. This enabled the phenomenon of prophecy to continue in the nation for hundreds of years, during which the prophets enriched the whole world with words of inspiration and a desire to reach spiritual peaks. Therefore, it is not surprising that the central root word in this section is “davar.”

Let us pray that we will soon witness the return to prophecy, so that our nation and humanity as a whole will rise up to the summits of the revelation at Sinai.

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