Letters Dec. 2023

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

What was Really Heard at Sinai?

Turk Hill: In his Guide (2:33) Maimonides states that at Sinai “Moses alone was addressed by God and he told his fellow-men what he heard.” Below are some more quotes by Maimonides:

“It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God” (Ibid.).

“God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers…” (ibid.).

“Again it is stated, “You heard a sound of words” (Deut. 4:12), and it is not said “You heard words”; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant” (ibid.).

“It was only Moses that heard the words, and he reported them to the people” (ibid.).

“It must, however, be noticed that the people did not understand the voice in the same degree as Moses did” (ibid.).

Does “Moses alone was addressed by God,” mean there was no national revelation?

What do you think he is trying to say here? 

In addition, the rabbis claimed that “God said all of the words simultaneously.” They heard a voice with all the words at once. Ibn Ezra mocks this view. If God said all the words at once the communication would have been garbled and not understandable. Did this affect how the ancient Israelites perceived the revelation?

Rabbi: “You heard a sound of words” (Deut. 4:12) means the Jews did not hear words, sentences or commandments, but they heard only sounds without speech. However, the sounds they heard were unlike anything they heard before. The sounds were organized patterns never found in nature. When we hear wind howling, it does not form patterns of 1 gust, then 3, then 5, then 7…and then repeat 1, 3, 5, and 7 gusts. If we heard such gust patterns, we would be certain they are organized by some underlying “will,” as natural winds are chaotic. Similarly, if we saw a lightning strike as 1 bolt, then 3 bolts then 5 bold then 7 bolts, and this repeated many times, again, we would be certain this lightning was ordered by some underlying designer, and certain that these are not natural lightning bolts. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:16). From here we learn the people had no doubt that the sounds were supernatural in origin. 

After the event Moses repeats to the people nine times that they should not forget that they “heard a voice emanating from the fire.” He told him they heard a voice but saw no form. He impressed upon the people that they should not make any error: this intelligence voice cannot be of biological origin, because fire destroys all intelligent biological life. Therefore, the people understood this revelation was generated by God alone. When they subsequently received Torah from Moses, how did they know that Moses did not write it himself? This was proven by the miracle of Moses’ face shining light beams. God would not create such a miracle for a charlatan. This miracle endorsed Moses as accurately representing God's communication. 

Why didn't God communicate words to the people as He did with Moses? This could be due to Moses’ supreme level of prophecy, which the people did not attain, and were therefore unfit to receive. Regardless, God did see the need for the people to witness intelligent sounds emanating from fire. Another reason Moses alone prophetically heard the words, could be that if what the people heard was identical to what Moses heard, they would have no problem arguing with him on various commands: “We heard the same thing as you Moses and we have a different interpretation.” Torah would thereby become fragmented. Therefore, through this method of Moses alone receiving Torah, the people remain eternally dependent upon his leadership, and this removed any potential confusion of God's words.

Regarding the meaning of “God said all of the words simultaneously” we can explain this metaphor to indicate that the entire corpus of Torah is interdependent upon all its parts. This explains why we are commanded not to alter Torah in anyway. It’s one complete perfect system, as if stated in a single utterance.

Turk Hill: Thank you for your reply. I agree that the Israelites did not hear the commands. However, is it possible that Moses spoke with a very loud voice? Perhaps he used a megaphone and pretended to be speaking out of the fire? 

Rabbi: No one can talk and 2 million people can hear him; voice does not possess such audible capacity. No one can make a voice emanate from fire, for what ever is generating the voice from the fire would be immediately burned.  

Turk Hill: Maimonides writes "Our eyes saw, and not a stranger's. Our ears heard, and not another's. There was fire, thunder, and lightning." All of these items are a part of natural phenomena. Is it possible that the Israelites only heard thunder and seen lightening and mistakenly thought that they heard the voice of God? 

Rabbi: As stated above, the Jews said “but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” They did not refer to thunder, but to some sound they identified as unnatural, as God’s voice.

Does Afterlife Exist?

Gordon G.: I sure hope it’s true that those who “passed” means only that they aren’t here, but they are not gone. 

Rabbi: God commanded us to follow the Rabbis (Deut. 17:11). That's because He knew the Rabbis would accurately transmit and interpret Torah. And there's not a single Rabbi who denies the principle of reward and punishment, the greater part of that reward being the person's afterlife. Afterlife is unanimously accepted. So important is this principle, that it is one of the 13 Fundamentals we must believe in order that we too have the eternal life. Every prophet and every Rabbi knows to be true that there is an afterlife which is complete bliss. King David said that it is only because he knew about the afterlife that he was able to tolerate the many pains he suffered here. 

In Tzidduk Hadin (accepting God’s decree of death recited at funerals), one section says, 

Whether man lives one year or a thousand years, of what benefit is it to him? It is as if he never existed. Blessed is the True Judge who kills and revives. 

This means that if life is truly temporary, the duration is of no value, if it completely ends. In this case, one cannot say “at least he lived,” because there is no “he” after death to benefit from those years. If there is no afterlife, once life ends, that life was as though never lived. Again, this is because in this case, the person no longer exists, and gained no benefit from having lived. This is a subtle point, but a true one. But Torah’s philosophy is that a good person earns eternal existence, and only that which is eternal, is a value. This explains why Tzidduk Ha’din concludes with the affirmation “God kills and revives,” i.e., there is an afterlife.

The principle here is fundamental, and that is that goodness equates with what is eternal. Meaning, what is not eternal has no value. Why is this so?

What exists, does so not on its own, but only due to God’s will. If something endures, this means God wills it to endure, it means it is of value before God. “Whether man lives one year or a thousand years, of what benefit is it to him? It is as if he never existed” applies even during the evil person’s life. For as he will eventually expire, his current life does not possess eternity. His life is worthless. But if he chooses to obey God and earns eternity, then he has value. 

You might ask that we see evil people throughout all time. Does this mean that evil has value before God? The answer is that what exists throughout time is free will; evil is what individuals select…individuals who are temporary. But free will, which is eternal, is a value before God. 

Does Free Will Exist?

Dani Roth: How can free will exist if the world is completely run by the laws of nature?

Rabbi: How does nature affect free will?

Dani Roth: Well I could say that every decision I make is just because of something that happened to me in the past, so it's not really free will.

Rabbi: Therefore you must say that free will is something which can be engaged, despite influences or your emotions from previous situations. A person has the ability not to be affected by his past but to make decisions based solely on his mind. Free will means that you can separate the effect of your emotions and your history, and instead, follow your mind alone. But if a person were purely emotional, then you are correct: he just reacts based on his upbringing and his experiences without choice. But if a person uses his mind he can override the effects of his emotions and choose his decisions based on his mind alone.

Dani Roth: So then I guess you'd that this operates outside of nature, because it's an effect without a cause.

Rabbi: Exactly. A person who uses his mind is not following natural influences. This means that the person's mind can operate without influence from the emotions. That's exactly what God said to Kayin when he wanted to kill his brother Hevel: “You can rule over your emotions."

Dani Roth: Ok, that makes sense. Thanks!