Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Va'etchanan
To dedicate this lesson

Who Heard Ten?

Parashat Vaetchanan returns us to the Ten Commandments. We also read the parasha of Shema, which we recite twice a day, thereby accepting Hashem’s sovereignty over us. One thing that unites these special Torah portions is the matter of shemi’ah (hearing).

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Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Av 11 5781
Parashat Vaetchanan, which we are reading, as usual, on Shabbat Nachamu, returns us to the Ten Commandments, which were given in a "once in world history" event – the revelation of Hashem to Bnei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai. We also read the parasha of Shema, which we recite twice a day, thereby accepting Hashem’s sovereignty over us. One thing that unites these special Torah portions is the matter of shemi’ah (hearing).

There is a machloket what exactly we/our forefathers heard at Sinai. The simple reading of our parasha indicates that we heard all ten of the dibrot (or devarim, as the Torah calls them) from Hashem directly: "… the sound of devarim you (pl.) are hearing … and He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the ten devarim" (Devarim 4:12-13). "Face to face Hashem spoke with you at the mountain from the fire … [The Ten Commandments] … these devarim Hashem spoke with your whole assemblage …" (ibid. 5: 4-19).

The opinion of "the Rabbis" in Shir Hashirim Rabba (1:2) indeed says that the nation heard all the dibrot directly from Hashem. Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael (Yitro 4) also says that Hashem said all of the Ten Commandments in one burst of speech and then specified each commandment individually.

On the other hand, there is another opinion in Shir Hashirim Rabba (ibid.) that the nation as a whole heard only two dibrot. Rabbi Yehoshua learns from "He shall kiss me from the kisses of His mouth" that we only heard some of the dibrot, specifically the first two – "I am Hashem …" and "You will not have other gods …" Others learn it from gematria. "Moshe commanded us Torah," has a numerical value of 611, as the other two of the 613 mitzvot we did not hear originally from Moshe but directly from Hashem. The gemara (Makkot 23b-24a) advances this approach based on Moshe’s statement: "I am going to stand between Hashem and you at that time to tell you the word of Hashem" (Devarim 5:5).

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim II:33) suggests a third possibility. At Sinai the people did not hear Hashem’s words; only Moshe did. What the people experienced was the powerful, wondrous sounds and sights of Hashem speaking to Moshe, who shared the specific content with them.

After "begging pardon" from the great participants in this machloket, we humbly suggest an approach that can "make peace" between the above. According to tradition, all the Jewish people throughout the generations stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah together. This includes especially righteous people, those who were apparently wicked, and the many who fell between the extremes. Perhaps the fully righteous heard all the commandments from Hashem directly. The wicked heard only the sound of Hashem speaking to Moshe. The average people heard two commandments from Hashem and the rest through Moshe.

Specifically, in these difficult times, we should remember and stress that we are one nation. All of us, the different parts of the nation over the generations, were at Sinai. Let us decrease hatred and polarization. We should remember that "anochi" (i.e., one’s ego) stands between Hashem and us. Let us subdue that which divides us. With the help of an improved approach to holding ourselves personally accountable, let us turn the sad days into joyous ones.
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