Shiur #31: Torah Study (5) "The Day That You Stood Before The Lord Your God In Chorev”

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

I. The Importance of the Assembly at Mount Sinai

The relationship between one who studies Torah and He who gave it, which we expanded upon in previous shiurim, is expressed in the bond created between one who studies the Torah (Written and Oral) and God. This connection is expressed in the contents studied, as well as in the deeper understanding and contemplation of those contents. It is often also accompanied by creative insights about those contents, in the sense of "grant our portion in Your Torah."

This relationship, however, is not limited to content alone, but it also arises from the consciousness of standing before God and hearing His word, and from the memory of "the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev" (Devarim 4:10).

The Torah attaches great importance to Israel's assembly at Mount Sinai, as is stated in Devarim:

Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life: but teach them to your sons, and your sons' sons, the day that you stood before the Lord your God in Chorev, when the Lord said to me, Gather Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Devarim 4:9-10)

The Ramban sees two fundamental commandments in these verses, both perpetuating the memory of the assembly at Mount Sinai for the generations to come. Alongside the negative commandment not to forget this assembly, there is also a positive commandment to teach future generations about it:

But, in my opinion, this verse is a negative commandment, … for after He said that we must take heed of all the commandments and keep the statutes and judgments and do them, He reiterated: I warn you to take heed and keep yourself in exceeding manner, to remember where all these commandments came to you, that you not forget the assembly at Mount Sinai or anything that your eyes saw there; the voices and the lightning, His glory and His greatness, and the words that you heard there out of the fire.

And you shall teach all the things that your eyes saw at that great assembly to your sons and to your sons' sons forever. And He explains the reason, for God arranged for this assembly so that you would learn to fear Him all the days, and that you would teach your children for all generations. If so, perform the commandments in this manner and do not forget Him. Now before mentioning the commandments that were uttered there, He warned by way of a negative commandment that we must not forget anything of that assembly and that we never remove it from our hearts. And He commanded by way of a positive commandment that we must teach all of our descendants from one generation to the next everything that happened there, that we saw and heard. (Ramban, Devarim 4:9)

Accordingly, the Ramban adds in his strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot:

The second mitzva is that we are forbidden to forget the assembly at Mount Sinai, or to remove it from our minds, but rather our eyes and hearts must be there all our days. This is what He said: "Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life: but teach them to your sons, and your sons' sons, the day that you stood before the Lord your God in Chorev…." This is a great principle, i.e., the prohibition stemming from the verse: "Lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen." And He warned us lest they depart from our hearts, and that we must teach them to our sons and our sons' sons for all generations."[1] (Ramban, Mitzvot omitted by the Rambam, Negative commandment, no. 2)

II. Perpetuating the Experience of Fearing God

There is a certain difficulty in the demand made upon the later generations: "Lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen." It was only those who left Egypt who actually saw and experienced the intense assembly at Sinai. It would appear that only they could be commanded not to forget, and only they could be bound by the obligation to teach about that powerful assembly to their children and grandchildren.

In his strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the Ramban alludes to the possibility that the verses in Devarim apply only to that generation, but he rejects this idea:

Do not be misled by what they expounded in the first chapter of Kiddushin (30a) that "To your sons, and to your sons' sons" [refers to] teaching Torah to your sons' sons. For teaching the faith of the Torah is teaching Torah. But we should consider and adduce proof from their words that it is an eternal commandment, applying in all generations, that one must not forget the matter of that assembly that was experienced by all the people through what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears, and one must hand it down from generation to generation forever. (Ramban, Strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot)

Support for the Ramban's position may be brought from the audience targeted by Moshe in his oration. When Moshe admonished the people, standing before him were the members of the generation that were about to enter Eretz Israel, and not those who had left Egypt. As we all know, the people who left Egypt all died during the forty years of Israel's wanderings in the wilderness. At most, the audience included people between forty and sixty years of age, who had been younger than twenty years old when the Torah was given at Sinai.

Since Moshe was speaking to "all of Israel," his words must have been directed even to those who had not seen these marvels with their own eyes. Even one who was not present at the assembly at Mount Sinai is obligated not to forget the things which he saw with his eyes, nor to refrain from teaching those things to his children and grandchildren.

But how can the later generations, who didn’t see the voice of God speaking out of the fire, or the voices, the lightning, or the smoking mountain, be commanded not to forget these sights and sounds and to teach them to their children?

We might be able to answer this question if we return to the verses cited at the beginning of this shiur. Along with the prohibition not to forget and the commandment to teach about "the day that you stood at Chorev," Moshe says as follows:

When the Lord said to me, Gather Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Devarim 4:10)

It would appear from these verses that the day of the assembly was meant to perpetuate the fear of God throughout the people's lives and for all generations.

Following the Ramban's explanation of this commandment, let us explain the connection of the later generations to this commandment and its implementation. The Ramban writes:

And the benefits of this commandment are great, for had the words of the Torah come to us from Moshe alone, even though his prophecy was authenticated through signs and wonders, were a prophet or dreamer to arise in our midst and command us the opposite of the Torah and provide us with a sign or a wonder, a doubt would enter into people's hearts. But since the Torah reached our ears and eyes directly from the mouth of the Almighty, we will refute anyone who disagrees or raises doubts, and call him a liar. No sign will help him, and no wonder will save him from death at our hands, because we know that he is lying. (Ramban, Devarim 4:9)

The Ramban attaches great importance to remembering the assembly at Mount Sinai. This assembly includes the unique experience of seeing the voices, the lightning, the clouds and the thick darkness, as well as the intense certainty of God's word to Moshe and the people, to the point that everyone present attained the level of prophecy. What is more, this assembly proved the superiority of Moshe's prophecy over that of all the other prophets.

The Ramban clarifies this idea elsewhere in his commentary to the Torah:

"I come to you in a thick cloud" (Shemot 19:9), that you should approach the thick darkness, so that the people should hear My word, and become prophets regarding My word, not that they should have to believe from the mouths of others. As it is stated: "When the Lord said to me, Gather Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth."

And they will also believe in you forever in all generations, and should a prophet or dreamer arise among them against your words, they will immediately deny him, as they already saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears that you reached the highest level of prophecy. It will become clear to them from you that which is stated: "If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision, and speak to him in a dream. My servant Moshe is not so, for he is the trusted one in all My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth" (Bemidbar 12:6-8). And therefore He said: "That the people may hear when I speak with you," for they will hear My words from the fire and know that it is I the Lord who speaks to you, and they will believe in My words and in you forever. (Ramban, Shemot 19:9)

The Ramban emphasizes that the transmission of the Torah from2 one generation to the next includes not only the contents of the Torah and its commandments, but also the experience. Not just the command, "And you shall teach them diligently to your children… And you shall teach them your children," but also the transmission of the experience of the assembly at Sinai for all generations. This transmission of the experience from one generation to the next is meant to ensure that Israel's faith in the Torah and in Moshe will remain for all eternity, and will not be endangered by prophets or dreamers who might appear.

In any event, remembering the assembly at Mount Sinai and teaching future generations about it has even more fundamental significance. A person who hears the word of God directly from the Almighty experiences a prophetic encounter and feels an unmediated connection, as it were, to God, the Giver of the Torah.

It is this experience that pushes off the winds blowing in the world that try to undermine Israel's fervent faith in the truth of the Torah and in the prophecy of Moshe,  master of all the prophets.

According to the Ramban, the transmission of the contents of the Torah and the commandments, together with the fundamentals of the faith, is what underlies Chazal's exposition in Kiddushin:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Whoever teaches his grandson Torah, Scripture regards him as though he had received it [directly] from Mount Sinai, as it is stated: "And you shall teach them to your sons and your sons' sons," and this is followed by: "The day that you stood before the Lord Your God in Chorev." (Kiddushin 30a)

The Ramban understands this as follows:

Do not be misled[2] by what they expounded in the first chapter of Kiddushin (30a) that "To your sons, and to your sons' sons" [refers to] teaching Torah to your sons' sons. For teaching the faith of the Torah is teaching Torah.

Torah study, which is joined to the experience at the assembly that accompanied the giving of the Torah, finds expression in the Talmudic passage cited above: "Scripture regards him as though he had received it [directly] from Mount Sinai."

III. Hakhel

The perpetuation of the Sinai experience in future generations finds expression in two central events in the life of the people. These two events are meant to bring together the people of Israel and the word of God. They are sort of a reenactment, an attempt to restore those feelings and voices that were heard and seen on the mountain when God descended upon it and revealed Himself in the sight of all.

In today's shiur we will focus on the first of these events, the mitzva of hakhel, the commandment that the Jewish people must assemble in the Temple courtyard once every seven years to hear the public reading of the book of Devarim. This mitzva brings to mind, and not by chance, the day of hakhel on Mount Sinai, and the verse that is the subject of our discussion:

When the Lord said to me, Gather (hakhel) Me the people together, and I will make them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Devarim 4:10)

An examination of the verses relating to the mitzva of Hakhel reveals the clear connection between that mitzva and the obligation to remember the assembly at Mount Sinai. It says in the book of Devarim as follows:

And Moshe commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the time of the Sabbatical year, on the Sukkot festival, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah: and that their children, who have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, all the days that you live in the land which you go over the Jordan to possess it. (Devarim 31:10-13)

The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Chagiga:

It is a positive commandment to gather together the entire Jewish people – men, women, and children – after every Sabbatical year when they ascend for the pilgrimage holiday and to read so that they hear passages from the Torah that encourage them to perform mitzvot and to strengthen them in the true faith, as it is stated: "At the end of every seven years, in the time of the Sabbatical year, on the Sukkot festival, when all Israel is come to appear… Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and your stranger that is within your gates…." (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:1)

They are obligated to concentrate their attention and direct their hearing, listening with reverence and awe, rejoicing while trembling, as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great Sages who know the entire Torah are obligated to listen with exceedingly great concentration. One who is unable to hear should focus his attention on this reading, for Scripture established it solely to strengthen the true faith. He should see himself as if he had just received the Torah and heard it from the Almighty. For the king is an agent to make known the word of God. (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6)

The mitzva of hakhel is a reenactment for future generations of the assembly at Mount Sinai. This reenactment comes to strengthen the feeling of "which your eyes have seen." Even though it is, of course, impossible to reenact the event in full, the atmosphere accompanying the gathering should be as it was at Sinai. As the Rambam describes it: "With reverence and awe, rejoicing while trembling as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai." The mitzva of hakhel, as it appears in the verses cited above, emphasizes two main principles. These principles are the foundation of our connection to the Torah:

1. Learning for the sake of observance:

Gather the people together… that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah. (Devarim 31:12)

These verses deal with listening that is accompanied by the understanding and study of Torah. Understanding and study, and the resulting fear of God, will lead to observing and keeping of all the words of the Torah.

2. Learning the fear of God:

And that their children, who have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, all the days that you live in the land. (Devarim 31:13)

These verses deal with those who are incapable of understanding and knowing. The primary reason such people must come to the hakhel gathering is in order to hear and learn to fear God – to feel the fear of the very standing before God with awe and trembling. In other words, even one who does not understand what is happening benefits from the very gathering, with the glory, holiness and fear of God that accompanies it.

The Or ha-Chayyim describes the nature of this second type of learning:

This portion corresponds to the children mentioned in the verse of hakhel. Even if they have not reached the age of education, nevertheless they must hear and learn to fear God. This means that they must be taught to fear God. For this reason it does not say as it says in the verse of hakhel: "that they may learn and fear," which are two things, but rather: "and learn to fear," i.e., they will learn the fear of Heaven through this. And it says: "all the days," because when children learn to fear [God] from the very beginning, the fear of God will be implanted in them all their days. (Or ha-Chayyim, ad loc.)

Even though the Torah distinguishes between men and women who must hear and learn, and children "do not know anything," the Rambam emphasizes that the distinction is between those who understand and those who do not understand. According to him, there is no distinction between children and adults:

Even great Sages who know the entire Torah are obligated to listen with exceedingly great concentration. One who is unable to hear should focus his attention on this reading, for Scripture established it solely to strengthen true faith. He should see himself as if he was just now commanded regarding the Torah and heard it from the Almighty. (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6)

The great Sages understand the content of the words, while those who cannot hear or understand must focus their attention on the experiential dimension of hearing the word of God from the mouth of the Almighty.

The Rambam seems to maintain that the hakhel gathering, which brings together different sectors of the population (men, women, and children), is designed to allow all these sectors to internalize the fact that every individual has a part in the Torah, according to his own level. The connection to Torah can be one of study and understanding, and it can be one of focused attention on the fear of God. Every person acquires a portion of the Torah in accordance with his capabilities, be he young or old (of course, even an old man can be a child for this purpose).

IV. In Order to Grant Reward to Those That Bring Them

            This seems to be the way to explain the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in his exposition concerning the mitzva of hakhel:

"Gather the people together, men, women and children." The men come to learn, the women come to hear, but why do the children come? In order to grant reward to those that bring them. (Chagiga 3a)

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya distinguishes between the men who come to learn and the women who come to hear,[3] and he introduces the novel idea that the children come in order to grant reward to those who bring them. The simple meaning of this is that the children gain nothing from their presence at the hakhel gathering, and merely cause trouble for those who bring them. But God does not withhold reward from those who trouble themselves for a mitzva, for "according to the labor is the reward."

In my opinion, this is exceedingly puzzling. Besides the fact that a burden is placed upon the people to bring their children only to grant them reward for having brought them, this runs counter to the explicit reason provided in the verse, which states as follows:

And that their children, who have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God.

It is stated explicitly here that the children come in order to learn the fear of God from the very assembly.[4]

The difficulty with the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya becomes even stronger, when the Gemara cites Rabbi Yehoshua's evaluation of this novel idea as "a fair jewel."

It therefore appears that the hakhel assembly is designed to gather together the various sectors of the population, so that each will receive what is appropriate. What is more, each sector must learn from the others that any connection to the Torah is valuable and important, whether it is a connection of learning Torah, a connection of hearing, or a connection of learning the fear of Heaven.

This is what Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya means when he explains the reason for bringing children as a way "to grant reward to those that bring them." The goal is that one who brings them should understand that learning the fear of Heaven from this grand assembly and impressive ceremony is a very important value.

According to what we have said, learning the fear of Heaven underlies the commandment not to forget that which your eyes have seen, and it is what leads to the obligation to teach one's children and grandchildren.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 


[1] Attention should be paid to the difference between what is stated in the Ramban's commentary on the Torah and what is stated here. In his commentary on the Torah, the Ramban emphasizes that there is a negative commandment, the prohibition not to forget the assembly at Mount Sinai, and a positive commandment, the command to teach about that assembly to the coming generations. In his strictures to the Sefer ha-Mitzvot, on the other hand, the Ramban includes everything in the negative commandment, both that we must not forget the assembly at Sinai and that we must not refrain from teaching about this assembly to our children and grandchildren.   

[2] What this means is that we should not think that this verse refers exclusively to the study of the Torah itself, but rather that it speaks also of studying the principles of faith embodied in the participation of all of Israel in the assembly at Mount Sinai.

[3] This distinction is not explicit in the Torah, but rather an exposition based on the wording of the verse: "that they may hear, and that they may learn;" Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya understands each phrase as referring to a different group of people.

[4] See Or ha-Chayyim, ad loc., who distinguishes between children who come to learn the fear of Heaven, and infants who come in order to grant reward to those who bring them. But this too requires further examination, as it is difficult to say that anybody is brought just for the trouble involved and for the reward that this will merit, and not for some intrinsic reason.