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"It Reached No Further"

This week we listen in as Moshe continues his farewell address to the Israelites. His focus shifts to what the people must remember and honor as their foundational principles, namely the numerous laws, edicts and assorted teachings. In particular, Moshe emphasizes the Eser Dibrot -the Ten Commandments, and thus they are repeated here. These can safely be described as the quintessential universal biblical teaching since they are readily embraced by all religions with their taproot in the Hebrew Bible. Perplexingly, there is a clause in the verse that immediately proceeds the reiteration of the Ten Commandments. It is: "These words did God speak to your entire assembly upon the mountain out of the fire, the clouds, and the opaque darkness -a great voice, and it reached no further- and God wrote them upon two stone tablets and gave them to me." Deuteronomy 5:19. What does the phrase "reached no further" mean?

Rabbi Samson Hirsch offers a decidedly non-universal understanding of what "reached no further" means. In his Torah commentary Hirsch writes that God's voice, "was not audible beyond the immediate circle of the Jews. It was heard only by those to whom it had been addressed". (Hirsch Torah, p. 678) He further elaborates that God's voice was not actually an acoustic phenomenon but rather a different kind of "hearing" by those who chose to listen. For Hirsch, the hearing of "God's voice" seems to be not a physical experience but more of an experience of moral enlightenment. Thus, to "hear" God's voice is to achieve a level of moral development that results in one feeling bound to act according to the teachings found in the Torah.

Rashi, on the other hand, points to the translation of this phrase in the Aramaic translation, called the Targum, that understands it to mean "God did not cease". This means that God "spoke" the entire Eser Dibrot without pausing to take a breath. This, according to Rashi, shows the divine origin of these teachings, and therefore their universal import, because "it is characteristic of human beings that they are unable to utter all their words in one breath". Poetically, Rashi continues by adding "for God's voice is strong and goes on continuously", i.e., infinitely! Not content to leave things alone, Rashi also adds that this might also mean that God's voice was never again so publicly heard.

Two alternative understandings: the former suggests that revelation was the privilege of the morally elite, while the latter implies that the very act, never mind the content, of the giving of the Law represents a discernible, knowable miracle. There is something mildly offensive about Hirsch's interpretation that revelation is for the morally enlightened. On the other hand, were it not for those people who somehow discern a higher moral alternative way of behaving and then lead us toward it we might not ever advance morally. Rashi's explanation is more simplistic. It does, however, offer the opportunity for each to understand the meaning of revelation on his or her own level. This seems more democratic to me, yet it is Hirsch's perspective that God's voice is not audible to someone unless he or she is prepared to hear it seems to resonate more truly with the idea within contemporary Judaism that we choose to be chosen.

I like the ambiguity in the phrase "reached no further".
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah