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 Aseret HaDibrot, 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.
There is a perplexing clause in the verse that immediately proceeds the reiteration of the Ten Commandments: “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?
In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Samson Hirsch offers a decidedly non-universal understanding of “reached no further.” He 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 an experience of moral enlightenment. Thus, to “hear” God’s voice is to achieve a level of moral development that results in one’s 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 Targum, a classical Aramaic translation of the Torah. This teaching interprets “reached no further” as meaning “God did not cease.” This means that God “spoke” the entire Aseret HaDibrot 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 finally adds adds an alternative reading of the phrase: that God’s voice was never again so publicly heard.
So we have two alternative understandings of divine revelation. Hirsch suggests that revelation was the privilege of the morally elite, while Rashi 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 reserved for for the morally enlightened. On the other hand, were it not for those who discern a higher moral way of behaving and then lead us toward it, we might not ever evolve and advance. Rashi’s explanation is more simplistic, but more democratic: it offers the opportunity for each person to understand the meaning of revelation on his or her own level. Yet despite Rashi’s egalitarian impulse, 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 contemporary Jewish reality that ultimately, Jewish commitment is voluntary. If we are “chosen,” it is because we choose to be so.