“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians.” (Exodus 19:4)
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in the thickness of a cloud so that that the people may hear when I speak with you and trust you also ever after’.” (Exodus 19:9)
“G-d spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord, your G-d.” (Exodus 20:1)
The Revelation at Mount Sinai was the occasion of the giving of the Torah. This is the occasion which gives Divine authority to the Written and the Oral Torah — so the believers believe. They also believe that if G-d had not revealed Himself to His people, Israel, and given them the purpose of creation, the observance of Torah and commandments, we would not find our way in this world, we would stand confused and baffled about why and wherefore we exist and what the purpose of the Creation is. He Who spoke and the world came into being did us a kindness when He revealed to us His commandments.
But how can we know that the Divine revelation was an actual historical fact?
Rashi wrote about this in chapter 19, verse 4, “‘You saw’ — it is not a tradition of yours nor words I relate to you, I do not bring you witnesses. But you yourselves saw it.” And from Rashi’s words we learn that one who hears from a witness has a certain flaw, and there is even a halachic ruling, “Hearsay evidence is not permitted” (Shabbat 145a). This makes the matter quite difficult; see below.
The Ramban wrote on Deuteronomy 4:9, “‘And trust you also ever after,’ for when we copy the matter for our children they will know that it was a true thing, doubtless, as though all the generations had seen it, for we would not testify falsely to our sons and we would not bequeath to them nonsense with no benefit.” From this we learn that the Sinai Revelation passes from generation to generation: one witness to another.
These are the words of the Ramban and they are the logical backbone upon which faith rests. Therefore one who seeks truth is obligated to clarify the Ramban’s words at length, and we will examine them from three aspects:
First, it is accepted and clear that we, in our generation, did not see the voices or hear with our own ears the word of G-d, but we rely upon the testimony of our fathers and ancestors.
Before we go further into the words of the Ramban, it is worthwhile to emphasize that when speaking of the practical commandments and the halachot which are said to have been “given at Sinai,” the meaning is not that they have been passed from rabbi to student, but that they are of those halachot which the sages created based on their own learning and the deductions of their hearts, as we have already shown and proven in many places (see pamphlet 8 and our words on Parashat Bo and Parashat Beshalach).
So what was given to us at Sinai? We are left with nothing but the actual event, the Sinai Revelation, which by its very existence gave the Sages power and authority to determine laws and rulings based on their deduction.
The Ramban writes about the transmittal of this Revelation from generation to generation that fathers will not lie to their sons, and therefore the story of the Sinai Revelation is true. But we must state here that while it is a true presumption that fathers will not lie to nor harm their children, still if the father intends by his lies to bring a benefit to his child, he will most certainly lie. This very approach even received halachic authorization from Rabbi Elyahu Dessler, one the great men of his generation and the first spiritual mentor of the Ponevich yeshiva, who explicitly ruled in his book “Michtav M’Eliyahu” (vol. 1, page 94): “Sometimes it is forbidden to say things as they are…and sometimes one must intentionally change when the truth will do no good, only harm, for then what appears to be truth is a lie which leads to bad consequences and what looks like a lie brings results of truth. So we find that truth is what brings about good and the will of the Creator, and a lie is what gives success to the dealings of the minister of lies, he of the other side.”
From these important words you learn that one who truly believes that the word of G-d is true and stable cannot be trusted not to lie to his child on matters of faith. He won’t lie to him in order to harm him, only for what he considers will truly benefit the child. Therefore, the presumption of a father’s loyalty to his child on our issue falls into a deep well. Certainly the believer who wishes to instill his beliefs in his child will base himself on stories and acts which bring one close to the faith, such as that of the Sinai Revelation, even if they never happened. What value has reality in his eyes as opposed to faith?
Second, look at the matter and check: Has anyone in our generation received any sort of testimony from his rabbi or his father about what really happened during the Revelation at Sinai? And about what they heard? Long ago the positive and the prohibitory commandments of “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children, the day you stood before the Lord your G-d at Horeb” (Deuteronomy 4:9) had been nullified. The Ramban wrote, “The Torah warned us with a prohibitory commandment not to forget a single thing from that Revelation and never to let it fade from our minds, and we were given a positive commandment to tell about it to all our offsprings from generation to generation.” But we greatly doubt whether the Ramban himself heard from his father or his elders a full testimony about the Revelation at Sinai, for all his knowledge is merely from his understanding of the written.
Third, come and see how our rabbis disagreed in explicating the verses, and this because they never received from their rabbis the incident or occasion which occurred, and they explained the verses based on their own understanding. Therefore the commentators even disagree about the essence of the Sinai Revelation. According to Ibn Ezra (Deuteronomy 5:16), “I am the Lord, your G-d” is not one of the Ten Commandments, as he wrote: “It seems to me that the word ‘I’ is not of the Ten [Commandments], but ‘I’ is the foreword of He who commands.” So, he doubts even which words which Israelites heard from the mouth of the Glory at Sinai. The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, section two chapter 33, also brings differing opinions: “It has become clear to me that at the Sinai Revelation what reached Moshe did not reach all of Israel, but His word reached Moshe alone…but there is an opinion brought in many places in the Midrash and even in the Talmud, that when He said ‘I am’ and ‘You shall not have before Me’ they heard it directly from the mouth of the Glory.” This is a proof that even the Rambam never heard from his rabbis what the people of Israel heard from the mouth of the Glory at Sinai; but he comments from what he sees in the verses.
And on the verse “And all the people see the voices” Rashi comments, “They see what is to be heard, that which can be seen nowhere else,” that is, actual, physical vision; but Ibn Ezra, Sforno, and Chezkuni wrote that “all the people see” was a metaphor for knowledge and understanding, as in Ecclesiastics 1:16, “and my heart saw.”
And even about Chazal’s saying “Shamor and Zachor were said simultaneously,” Ibn Ezra wrote (on Exodus 20:1), “When we have searched Chazal’s words for what they said about this [the difference between the version of the Ten Commandments written in Exodus and that written in Deuteronomy] we have found they said Shamor and Zachor were said simultaneously; but this saying is more difficult than all the questions we have to explain.”
From all that said above you see that our rabbis do not base their comments on what they heard or on a testimony about what had really happened, but only on their own learning and understanding the verses.
And do not wonder about what and why we should believe the stories written in the Bible, for we have already given our answer in many places — that faith does not rely upon proof and testimony, nor on logical arguments, but it is what is accepted by the heart. One who believes in the Revelation at Sinai accepts it within his heart, exactly as does any other believer who believes in anything which would seem to you strange and odd. In the United States they have even established a hospital for women who believe they were impregnated by aliens and extraterrestrials; we don’t understand it. Look around yourself, see all those people of religions and cults and groups who accept their beliefs with all their hearts, souls, and means, and understand that faith is of those things which have no limits or bounds. For a believer the truth lies not with factual reality, but in his faith alone. In the name of faith he will say that right is left and left is right, and this is, to him, truth.
We will conclude with the words of one of the Bnei Brak rabbis in his letter to us: “All who seek the truth will find it heartily, but those who seek to gore will not, like many, many things of this sort, for faith is not mathematics (and I can prove logically that a mathematical proof for faith is impossible)…” These are the words of a believer. Not for naught did the writer write that one who seeks truth will find it “heartily,” as for him truth will come as a heart’s feeling and not from reason, logic, wisdom, and the senses.
But we say: it is good for a person to have faith, but woe to any whose faith takes the place of his reason, for what is the advantage of a righteous fool and what is the value of an ignorant believer?
Words of True Knowledge