There can be no doubt that the central theme of this week’s Parsha are the Assaret HaDibrot. The very fact that the grammar check on my computer objects to the grammatical contradiction in this first sentence (there is, as the computer so helpfully reminds me, a subject-verb contradiction), serves to underscore the point. The Assaret HaDibrot is either singular, a theme, therefore the verb in the sentence should be “is”, or they are plural, as the simple translation of the words indicate, and therefore the sentence should have introduced them as the central themes (plural) of the Parsha. We know, however, that both positions are correct. While there are ten discrete commandments within the Assaret HaDibrot, they are in fact one central idea, the Torah.
The Ralbag makes this point quite clearly immediately after his explanation of the various commands, when he states that “it is proper to understand that these ten things encompass all the mitzvot of the Torah, and this is why it was Hashem’s intention that all of Bnai Yisrael should hear them in this fashion and not from Moshe. [It was so] in order that they should believe beyond any doubt that they (the Dibrot) were from the Almighty, since by believing in them (i.e. their Divine nature, as demonstrated by the fact that they were received directly from Hashem), they would also believe (in the Divine nature) of all the Torah’s mitzvot which encompass them.” The Ralbag then embarks on a lengthy exposition to demonstrate the validity of his position. We, of course, need no convincing. Ask any teacher about the most common questions that arise when teaching the Parsha, and invariably the confusion between Maamad Har Sinai on the one hand, and Matan Torah on the other will come up. That we so naturally combine the two is indicative of how deeply and intuitively the connection between them is understood.
As many of you who might have noticed, while confirming one aspect of the Dibrot which is so firmly accepted as common knowledge, at the same time the Ralbag clearly challenges another, almost equally widespread notion. The Gemara in Makkot (23b-24a) quotes the position of Rabbi Simlai, that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Rav Hamnunah proves the point from the passuk “Torah tziva lanu Moshe”, the Torah was commanded to us by Moshe. The Gematriah of Torah is 611, which corresponds to the number of Mitzvot that Moshe gave to Bnei Yisrael. The other two, “Aochi Hashem Elokecha”, and Lo Yihye Lecha Elokim Acherim” were received directly from Hashem at Har Sinai. It is clear that one can not, on the one hand, posit that the Asseret HaDibrot encompass the entire Torah and were given directly by Hashem in order to validate the rest of the mitzvot of the Torah, and then turn around and claim that only the first two Dibrot were given to Bnai Yisrael by Hashem.
The question of how many of the Dibrot were in fact directly heard from Hashem by Bnai Yisrael is in fact a source of much discussion both in the Midrash and amongst the various parshanim. The Ralbag rejects the position of Rav Hamnunah, explaining that it is a derasha meant to support the position of Rabbi Simlai, namely that there are a total of 613 mitzvot. It is not, however, meant to be taken literally. The Ralbag is not alone in his view. The Ibn Ezra vigorously argues this position as well (20:1 This is a very lengthy Ibn Ezra. The specific point may be found beginning with the words “Da ki asseret hadevarim at the end of the paragraph that begins with the words Amar Avraham haMechaber”). This of course is the simple meaning of the words “Et Kol HaDevarim HaElu”, that Hashem spoke all of these things. The Ramban (20:6), on the other hand, accepts the position of the Gemara. He supports his position by pointing out that in the first two Dibrot the command is given in the first person i.e. Anochi, al Panai, while in subsequent commands the third person is used. This would seem to indicate that Hashem gave the first two commands directly while the remaining eight were given by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra dismisses this point, arguing that once Hashem has properly “introduced” Himself, it is perfectly acceptable literary device to switch to third person.
The Chizkuni offers an interesting theory to reconcile the two positions. He suggests that while the entire Asseret HaDibrot was told by Hashem to Bnai Yisrael, it was in the form of “dibbur echad”, a single statement, which was unintelligible to Bnai Yisrael (see Rashi on the passuk as well). Hashem then restated each command so that they could be understood. It is the Chizkuni’s position that the first two commands were repeated by Hashem to all of Bnai Yisrael, while the final eight commands were only repeated to Moshe Rabbenu, who then passed them on to the nation. (For a more complete overview of this issue, see Rav Menachem Mendal Kasher’s Torah Shlaima, vol 16, miluim # 3-4. In the recently reprinted edition they are found at the end of vol 4).
The fear and awe that Bnai Yisrael experience during Maamad Har Sinai continue after the event as well. The Torah tells us (20:14-17) that upon seeing and experiencing the “sound and light show” of Matan Torah that, as a result of their fear, the people move back from Har Sinai and ask Moshe to speak with them in place of Hashem, for otherwise they will die. This request must be understood in light of the controversy we discussed above. According to the Ibn Ezra and Ralbag, this request comes at the end of Matan Torah, after all the Dibrot have been given to them by Hashem. Their fear is that the rest of Matan Torah will also be done directly between Hashem and the nation, and they express their hesitation to Moshe. The Chizkuni, on the other hand would contend that this request was already made after the second commandment, but that the Torah chose to record after all the Dibrot so as to avoid breaking up the continuum of the Asseret HaDibrot. (In a singular approach which does not appear to have been adopted by other commentaries, the Ramban employs the concept of ein mukdam umiuchar baTorah, that the Torah is not necessarily written in chronological order, in a more expansive fashion. He suggests that in fact this entire group of passukim precede Matan Torah. As a result Bnai Yisrael’s request cannot be referring to the final eight Dibrot but must be referring to all of Matan Torah, a request which is denied)
Regardless of when this exchange took place, Moshe Rabbenu’s efforts to calm the people are curious in and of themselves. The Torah tells us (20:16) that Moshe replies to them as follows. VaYomer Moshe El HaAm, Al Tirau”, and Moshe told the people do not fear, “Ki L’Bavour Nasot Etchem Ba HaElokim”, for Hashem has come L’Nasot you. The word L’Nasot is difficult in this particular context. Usually we understand that the word L’Nasot comes from the word “Nisayon”, to test. But to what test could Moshe be referring?
Rashi, sensing the difficulty in the word, suggests that the Torah is not referring to a test, but rather to “raising up”, from the word “Nes”, meaning a standard or banner. The meaning of the passuk would then be “do not fear, for Hashem has come to raise you up (and make you admired amongst the nations).” The difficulty with this approach is two fold. Firstly, the non-standard use of the word “nisayon” seems somewhat forced. Further, it is unclear exactly how the spectacle of Matan Torah, which was not witnessed by the nations of the world, would serve to raise the status of Am Yisrael in their eyes. And in fact, aside from Rashi, most other commentaries stick with the standard definition of Nisayon, leaving us with our original question. To which Nisayon can Moshe be referring?
The Ramban, after rejecting Rashi’s approach suggests three possible ways of applying our usual understanding of the word nisayon to the passuk. Quoting the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim, the Ramban says that rather than referring to a current test, the passuk is in fact telling us that Hashem is preparing Bnai Yisrael for a future one. By exposing the people to nevuah on such an intense level, they will now certainly be in a position to discern between authentic nevuah and false prophecy. The future test will be if they would reject false prophets or be seduced by them. Now armed with the necessary tools to distinguish between the two they will be prepared for the test.
The second possibility that the Ramban suggests is that this is in fact a current test, but with a twist. The presumption is that once Bnai Yisrael have been exposed to such an intense display of Nevuah, there can be no doubt left in their minds as to the truth of Hashem and His Torah. The test is to see if they will accept that truth, or will rebel against it. The power of this approach is how it goes against the grain. While we usually assume that the agent for failure in following Hashem is lack of knowledge, here the Ramban posits the opposite. The test at hand is do we rebel against Hashem, despite the fact that we know it is wrong. The power of human nature to rebel against dictates is so strong, that Hashem recognizes that this is a hurdle that Am Yisrael will have to overcome.
As a third possibility, the Ramban reminds us that we are constantly tested in life, by both adversity and privilege. In this case, the test is how Am Yisrael will respond to the good that Hashem is bestowing upon them by treating them differently and revealing more of Himself to them then he has ever done to any other nation. Will they recognize the responsibility that this relationship demands of them?
No matter what our circumstances, the question of how to respond to them is always left within our power. We are living in times that may be the most trying that our nation has experienced in the past thirty years. Do we respond by disengaging and distancing ourselves from our people and our country, or by reengaging and rededicating ourselves to the ideals that we believe in? We have been blessed with the gift that the previous 2000 years of Jews prayed for. But as the Ramban reminds us, nothing, not even gifts or blessings, come without strings attached. How we preserve and nurture that gift is one of the greatest Nisyanot of our generation.