In Shemot 19:12, in anticipation of Matan Torah, Moshe told the people, “‘Set a boundary around [the mountain], and tell them to be careful not to climb the mountain, or [even] to touch its edge. Anyone touching the mountain will die.”
A few verses later, the following exchange takes place. “Moses replied to G-d, ‘The people cannot climb Mount Sinai. You already warned them to set a boundary around the mountain and to declare it sacred.’ G-d said to him, ‘Go down. You can then come [back] up along with Aaron. But the priests and the [other] people must not violate the boundary to go up to the Divine; if they do, He will send destruction among them.’ Moses went down to the people and conveyed this to them.”
While we know Moshe was on the mountain for 40 days, it is interesting to note that the Torah is unclear on where he was during the Revelation itself. And the people — where are they? The closest they can be is the bottom of the mountain, as they are unable to ascend.
And yet, in Vaetchanan, Moshe says, “I stood between you and G-d at that time, to tell you G-d’s words, since you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain,” implying that it was only fire that prevented them from going up the mountain.
But weren’t they not allowed? And where was Moshe? If Moshe was between G-d and the people, there is a clear possibility that he was not on the mountain at all!
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains Moshe’s words to mean, “You did not dare to approach the mountain to hear Aseret Hadibrot” — implying that they could have approached, but didn’t.
Now, another reading is possible. For example, Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Bachaye read Moshe as saying matter-of-factly “You didn’t go up the mountain. I did. So your experience was different.” Perhaps they mean Moshe to say, “You were afraid because you didn’t understand G-d, while I, who was on the mountain, had a very different perception.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, the supercommentary on Rashi, combines these approaches, saying Moshe’s comment was an aside. However, he still seems to blame the people for not ascending the mountain, contradicting Ohr HaChaim who explicitly states that they were forbidden to do so.
The Netziv, however, paints an entirely different picture: “They did not sacrifice themselves to go up the mountain, which is why they did not have a supernatural experience. Moshe, on the other hand, even though he stood at the bottom of the mountain, was there not because he was afraid, but because he had been instructed by G-d to be at the bottom of the mountain. Israel, on the other hand, even if they wanted to go up were warned against it, and even without a warning were afraid to go. As a result, they did not comprehend the Dibrot in the ways Moshe did. When the Torah writes that they didn’t go up because they were afraid of the fire — this is the Torah’s way, giving one reason even though there is sometimes another reason as well.”
Everyone has a moment in time that gives them the opportunity to be a hero. How do we face that moment?
The people were told not to ascend the mountain. What if they had said “No — we’re going anyway”? Would they have been struck down like Nadav and Avihu, or would they have understood G-d the way Moshe did? Would they have died, or would they have an incredible story to tell? With such different opinions, it seems that the jury is still out.
But one thing is clear. Without taking a risk, the chance of achieving greatness is very slim.
Perhaps Moshe is just stating facts: I was on the mountain; you weren’t. But he might be saying, “You could have been on the mountain, and you chose not to be.”
But is that their fault? How could they have known it was an option?
This is why it’s unfair to point fingers. Things happen all the time — a miscommunication. A misunderstanding. Unlike politics, when careers are ruined but life goes on, in the real world, people need to be able to keep moving after misfortunates.
So what do we do? Point fingers? Blame? Or do we say, “This is the reality. Things went wrong. Let’s do our best to fix it and come up with a game plan for the future”?
I find that most interpersonal problems boil down to an inability to sit down and hash things out. Sometimes people need to compromise, to give a little and hopefully get something in return.
The story of Mount Sinai teaches us is that unless you take that step, you’ll never know. The rule at the mountain was meant to strike fear — but maybe it was to teach awe and reverence. Awe comes in many forms, and one of those is, when G-d says there’s a limit, we can test it, if we are truly doing so in a heartfelt way.
This is dangerous ground. How do we know what is within the realm of right and wrong?
Nadav and Avihu were wrong, but at the end of their lives, they were viewed as having gotten close to G-d. The people at Sinai were careful, but they didn’t achieve the closeness that Moshe did.
How will we know if we’ve achieved the ultimate? We can blame no one but ourselves if we don’t. And we’ll never get there if we aren’t willing to take bigger risks in our connection with G-d, setting goals for ourselves and taking baby steps to reach them.
It’s not a blame game. It’s moving forward, one step at a time, until we too can feel comfortable meeting G-d on the mountain.