(“God spoke to you face to face on the mountain from within the fire.” (Deut. 5:4)
What is the meaning of revelation, which stands at the center of the experience at Sinai? The Baal Hatanya (Shneur Zalman of Liady 1745- 1813) sees this question as particularly pressing when it comes to the content of revelation:
The first thing to understand is the meaning of “the giving of the Torah,” for our forefather Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah before it was even given… the verse says, “so that you will command your sons…” meaning that the Torah was something they would receive from their ancestors. Further, you must understand what it means that, during the Ten Commandments, God descended on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning, and that the people’s souls left their bodies upon hearing each commandment. Further, the commandments say “do not kill, do not commit adultery, etc.” and these are banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.
What value did the experience of Sinai add, if it only revealed things we already know? It seems that, as opposed to the things that occur in our regular existence, revelation is not evaluated based on the content that it transmits but based on the very fact of revelation, on the disruption of normal existence. According to the verse that we opened with, revelation is a revelation of the face, a direct encounter with God. This makes the question of the relationship between the finite and the infinite quite urgent.
What significance could revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea? Furthermore, Moshe was told, “a man cannot see my face and live… you shall see my back but you shall not see my face.” What then was the face that the Israelites saw from within the fire.
Maimonides reads the first verse of the revelation as a commandment, and this is how he explains its meaning:
The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdoms to know that there is a first existent, that brought into existence everything that exists, and everything that exists, the heavens and the earth and everything between them, exists by virtue of the truth of its existence… This is a positive commandment, as per the verse “I am the Lord your God.
The fundamental term of faith is “the truth of its existence,” and from this true existence, all things receive their existence. The truth of existence is the assertion that God truly exists, while what we think of as existence does not necessarily exist. What we think of as existence is really just a possible, incidental, existence, in contrast to the true existence that is a deeper layer than existence itself. The revelation at Mount Sinai was an encounter with this layer, with the truth of existence that transcends the existence with which we are familiar. This faith gives us our existence, without it we lack substance; our lived existence is flawed and transient. Faith gives a Jew his place – he exists in God.
Already in Maimonides’ depiction of Moshe’s request, he describes knowing the truth of existence as seeing a face:
What did Moshe want to comprehend when he asked: “Please show me Your glory?” He asked to know the truth of God’s existence to the point of internalizing it in his mind, the same way you know a particular person whose face he saw and whose form has been engraved within your mind. This person is distinct within your mind from other men. Similarly, Moshe asked that God’s existence be distinct within his mind from the existence of other entities, to the extent that he would know the truth of God’s existence as it is. God replied to him that a living person, body and soul, does not have the ability to comprehend this matter in its entirety. God revealed to him that which no man had known before him or would ever know afterward, until he was able to comprehend from the truth of God’s existence distinctly in his mind, as a person is distinguished from other men when one sees his back and knows his body and his clothing. This is alluded to by the verse, “You shall see My back, but you shall not see My face”.
Knowledge of the face is knowledge of the essence; recognition is unmediated. In contrast, knowledge of the back, such as Moshe merited, is the ability to understanding characteristic movements, how the unique essence is reflected in walking, clothing, or writing. Both of these types of knowledge involve some degree of unmediated contact with the essence. This is what distinguishes between them and the normal ways we talk about God, which connect with neither God’s essence nor its reflection.
To use different language, we might say that unmediated knowledge is a knowledge of direct recognition, distinct from theoretical knowledge, which is indirect knowledge. The difference between them is like the difference between an exact description from a matchmaker and a direct encounter with a partner. An unmediated encounter reveals “the thing itself,” everything that escapes description. A person’s uniqueness is only revealed in such an encounter, while a description can always be applied to another person. According to Maimonides, any descriptions of God in the prophetic books are mediated descriptions; they don’t clarify God’s essence but only teach about God’s existence. The revelation at Sinai in this regard – only at Sinai was there knowledge of God’s unmediated presence. Only such knowledge can give faith its certainty, because it touches substance, the divine reality, itself. This is also what gives Mosaic prophecy its absolute quality.
This is the voice that Israel heard, “for hearing the voice without the mediation of an angel is called ‘face to face”. Revelation of the face cannot be repeated, as it is not a superficial knowledge but an intimacy (yihud), an illumination, or in Maimonides’s language, “the unity of knower, knowing, and known.” Can we encounter God’s face? Can we know God intimately, to the point of “if I knew God, I would be God?” As we said, already in the biblical text there is a contradiction between the description of the revelation at Sinai and the assertion that “a man cannot see me and live.” The sages said that the souls of Israel left their bodies and they had to be brought back to life.
The commandment of faith that springs from the revelation “is not something expressed verbally, rather it is something depicted in the soul when you believe in it as depicted”. Depiction in the soul, rather than intellectual knowledge, gives substance to the faith that God really exists and is present, exists truly and not just possibly. This knowledge is a connection to the thing itself, it is the encounter with the face that Israel saw at Mount Sinai. As is clear from Maimonides’s description of Moshe’s request, experiencing God’s uniqueness is a recognition that distinguishes between the layer of what is common to others and a revelation of what cannot be conceptualized. Uniqueness is not a philosophical assertion to be affirmed but a divine intimacy that is bared before the believer. This intimacy created the intimacy of a person with himself, the truth and calm of faith. Encountering the truth of existence grants a believer his own existence.
As mentioned previously, Maimonides counts faith as a commandment, as opposed to all other early commentators. The statement “I am the Lord your God” should therefore be read not as God’s declaration presenting himself but as a command. However, Maimonides elsewhere taught that the commandments should be fulfilled for their own sake, meaning out of love. A commandment is not a law, enforced by violence, but it is also not a request, made from a position of inferiority. A declaration is not addressed to the listeners present; there is no turn toward them. The command should be understood as the truth of God’s existence turning toward the individual and toward the truth in him, “face to face.”
The command is a distinct type of speech. When a person enters a room and presents himself before those present with the words “I am Reuven,” he is not reporting on or depicting something but creating with his words, with constructive speech. However, such a person is not shouting into empty space. He needs the response of those present, for them to turn toward him in return; he needs their faces. If they turn away from him, he and his address remain incomplete, cut short and rejected. In the statement “I am,” God turns toward man in order for man to receive God’s kingship with love, for man to receive God’s address and thus create man as existence.
The force of a commandment is not a force of violence, it does not use strength, but rather its force comes from its origin. The address comes from the truth of God’s existence, from the depth of God’s intimacy (yihud). Rosenzweig describes this as the lover’s call, “love me.” In this address the lover turns toward his beloved with his essence, and it is impossible to ignore. This is an absolute demand that is not attempting to shape the future but simply happens in the present, in the moment of revelation, and therefore it cannot held onto and posited as law. In theory, it can be refused, but on the other hand there is no choice: if you don’t accept it, the world will return to chaos.
In Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) we find another approach to the revelation at Mount Sinai.
For God created the world using the Torah. The inner vitality of all creatures is the primordial force from the Torah… but this innerness (penimiyut) was created hidden. On the day of the revelation of the Torah, however, it was revealed and each thing attached to its root, as depicted in the verse, “face to face God spoke to you”… for then the all-enlivening power of the Torah was revealed… and the primary aspect of receiving the Torah is this revelation.
We can understand the words of Sefat Emet by using Existentialist concepts. In a person’s initial state they live in concealment and isolation. The vitality and meaning that rests in the world, its “innerness” in the language of “Sefat Emet,” is hidden from him. As a result of this, a person is trapped in inauthentic existence, which is, practically speaking, a lack of existence. In order to be freed from this state a person needs revelation, the disruption of this opaque existence and the revelation of reality. However, since we are talking about revelation and not an intellectual idea, the innerness must return to its concealment, submerged in the world of facts and generalizations.
In order to maintain itself, revelation requires a space within which to occur, a plane which will replace the existing plane. The Torah fills this role, creating the space where reality can be revealed, a space ready for holiness and the divine presence. The words of the Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments shape a world of holiness, the substance of which transcends the day-to-day world of facts. This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outer world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home. This is not the holiness of time, space, or any object, but the holiness of speech, where a language itself becomes a holy language.
The revelation of the Torah is not tied to any special insight or deep understanding; it is readily available to every Jew that is involved in Torah for its own sake, conscious of the divine command. He lives in the spoken words, in the open book, in understanding. As opposed to forms of understanding and experience that are an inner light, and therefore vary from person to person, this light is an instance of “surrounding all worlds” (sovev kol almin), beyond the emanated world, and it therefore shines alike on each person.
Sefat Emet describes this revelation as a return to the beginning and as a source of renewal. Initially, you can encounter the substance of a thing clearly and directly. Eventually, most things are again concealed in routine and repetition, interactions dull and faces are no longer revealing, as if after many years of marriage. Revelation is the starting point, the openness to the concealed innerness, renewing the connection from an old-new place. What is revealed and renews is not some external object, but reality itself.
The revelation of reality is experienced first and foremost as fear (yirah), as Baal Hatanya explains in the continuation of the teaching with which we began: “The purpose of the Torah and the commandments is to reveal God’s will within the lower world, as the verse says, “God commanded us to follow all of these laws, to fear God”.
The fear that accompanies revelation is not fear of something, but rather a terror that overcomes a person without any clear cause. It flows from the revelation of the nothingness of existence, the laying bare of the substantive reality behind our existence. Existence loses its material quality, its factual concreteness, it is spiritualized and appears as oneness (ahdut) and innerness. This is the response to the Baal Hatanya’s question about the very human nature of the Ten Commandments: the revelation at Sinai does not grant human ethics support from an absolute and transcendent source, but rather ethics itself appears as “nullified” (bevhinat habitul sheyesh bo), as a revelation of the infinite. The revelation is specifically in the banal statements, the superficial words.
This requires changing how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, is not evaluated based on an external fact. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on exacting adherence to existence but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.
This distinction can be put in terms of the Baal Hatanya’s distinction between greater knowledge (Da’at Elyon) and lesser knowledge (Da’at Tahton): in lesser knowledge, truth is about speech matching reality, and the concrete stability of the fact is an important part of truth. In greater knowledge, truth is about speech corresponding to its own inner reality, the substance that gives it its innerness. The constructive speech of the Torah does not refer to external things; such a speech would duality, on an external existence rooted in the sefirah of Malkhut.
The Torah is a revelation of “I am who I am,” speech that is one with itself and therefore disrupts the familiar frameworks of existence. Of course, identifying the truth and revelation of the Torah is not a function of deep understanding or study. Therefore it is accessible to people beyond just Torah scholars: “there is a bit of this in every Jewish soul… this is what we see practically with every Jew, when he learns any idea regarding God’s immanence or transcendence, or the like… his soul is excited and he becomes entrenched in the idea and pursues it.”
A Jew has a sense for divinity, for distinguishing between holy and mundane, between full and empty, and sometimes this sense is strongest of all in the simple Jew. The divinity in the Torah gives him great pleasure, not because of the content but transcending it. This pleasure is a manifestation of inner connection, of intimacy with the giver of the Torah who is present in it, of the covenant that is the Torah’s words. 
The first expression of the covenant at Mount Sinai is the preceding of “we will understand” by “we will do,” an order considered “the mystery used by ministering angels.” This mystery is the dependence of understanding on doing, which is [behind] the familiar assertion that no one who is not part of the covenant can understand the Torah. This assertion requires clarification, however: What is the connection between comprehension, covenant, and deed? Why can study not stand on its own?
The sages understood the Torah, first and foremost as God’s covenant with Israel. The primary meaning of Torah study is partaking in that covenant. The Oral Torah, which the sages called “the mystery,” is the intimacy between God and Israel. The sages expressed this in many homilies on their love of the Torah expressed through metaphors taken from marital life. A Jew finds his Jewish identity in the Torah, and through that his connection to God. That is how it was in the days of the Sages, and so it is today. Anyone devoted to the Torah experiences this, whether he is a student in yeshiva or a layman who gets up early to study a daily page of Talmud.
The bottom-line halakhah is therefore that a person can fulfill the requirement of the blessings on the Torah by saying the blessing of “Love,” [the 2nd blessing of the twice daily recitation of the Shema] for both the basis and the content of learning is love. This affects the form Torah study takes. Not every form of study can be covenantal, just as not every student can partake in the covenant. A non-Jew who learns Torah receives the death penalty, not because he lacks the intelligence necessary to understand it but because he does not belong to the covenant and its meaning will not be revealed to him anyway. Even regarding an ignorant person the sages taught, “one who teaches Torah in front of an ignorant person is like someone who has sexual relations with their fiancé in front of an ignoramus,” a sensitivity that reveals but a fraction of the intimacy of the scholar with his bride-Torah.
A number of anthropologists claim something similar. Can a western researcher ever understand the culture of tribesmen living in an entirely different existential space? Simply translating the language and customs into another language is not enough; in order to understand the culture you have to live within it and be a part of it. The sense of texts and actions cannot be abstracted or described objectively; it derives from the cultural context and the way of life that they are rooted in, and therefore must necessarily change in the transition to another culture. This was also the claim of the Musar masters against academic Talmud study, and this lay behind their demand that the study of ethics (musar) precede Torah study.
Regarding the Torah the claim is even more far-reaching. Not only is there no Torah without covenant, which, as we have seen, is also true regarding other forms of understanding, but the Torah itself is the language or the speech of the covenant. Not only do you have to be a participant in the covenant in order to understand the Torah, but also the whole sense of it is just this revelation, the creation of the covenant through the learning. Here we return to an idea we mentioned previously about revelation: the Torah is not representation, it does not belong to the dualistic world and its meaning does not transcend it. The Torah does not describe the world of the covenant but creates it. The covenant rests in, and is realized by, learning.
Accepting the yoke of heaven by putting “we will do” before “we will listen” is the only way to escape the external way of looking at things, the stance that evaluates things based on external criteria. Sealing a covenant enables entrance into the world shaped by the Torah, a world that cannot be known before you enter it, a world in which holiness dwells. Some people want to justify the casuistic style of learning (pilpul) based on this. They claim that casuistry is like a work of art: not to be evaluated based on physical or philosophical truth, but also not just intellectual aesthetics. Freed from practical learning, such as the exactitude of abstract research, which adheres to the words of the text, the imagination can create the vacuous space (halal panui) necessary for divine truth, which is infinite and unbounded.
The covenant creates a different type of learning and understanding, shaping the personality of the student in its image. The Torah in its entirety is a revelation of the “I am,” a speech that reveals reality rather than depicting it. Its truth is measured in its ability to be expressed; speaking Torah constructs it, without any dualism. Torah knowledge is not manifest in the ability to compare it to other areas, to identify similarities between it and some other meaning or value. Torah knowledge is manifest in the ability to speak it from the same place where it originated, in the ability to identify and unite with the intimacy it bears within it. “If I knew him, I would be him,” and the Torah can only be known by “being it.” This is how you understand a sermon, which is independent and constructive speech, by deeply studying the words until you feel that you could have given the sermon yourself. This unity blurs the lines between discovery and creation, and the student understands, interprets, and creates all at the same time.
This changes the position of the student, as Rav Hillel of Paritch taught:
“God spoke all these words to say, I am the Lord your God.” The word “saying” seems redundant, for throughout the Torah the word “saying” is said to Moshe as an instruction to convey the message to the Israelites… at the Ten Commandments all of Israel heard directly from God, so why was the word “to say” added?
This all makes sense in light of “The Giving of the Torah” (matan torah). This does not refer to the giving of the commandments of the Torah specifically, for they were given later at both Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting.
Instead, the intent is that the capacity for Torah was given to each and every Israelite, enabling him to create Torah by speaking and reveal “I am who I am” (this refers to God’s essence and nature) by performing the commandments, causing it to dwell within the Israelite… This is the meaning of “and he spoke to say I am,” for he drew these words into the souls of Israel so that each Israelite would be able “to say: I am,” revealing “I am who I am” within his soul.
In encountering and uniting with the divine speech that is in the Torah, the student receives its absoluteness, the truth of existence, and the inner unity that rests in the declaration “I am who I am.” The ability to speak the speech of Torah, the word of God, frees a person from the incidental and the possible in existence and enables him to encounter the substantive existent.
Rav Hillel of Paritch’s words raise another point regarding the covenant of “we will do and we will understand.” Much has been written about the tension between the Israelites’ putting “we will do” before “we will understand” and the sages understanding of the revelation at Sinai as “overturning (kafiah) the mountain like a barrel.” What is the place of compulsion (kafiah) in revelation, when at its basis stands the absolute consent of “we will do and we will understand”?
We celebrate the giving of the Torah, and not the receiving of the Torah. However, as we said, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, as expressed in the declaration “we will do and we will understand,” is critical. Without it, the revelation is just an unconvincing spectacle, a pyrotechnic display. In order to be a convinced, you have to be ready to be convinced.
If the Torah shapes the Jewish world, then there must be a process of contract entering a Jew into this world, where the Jew accepts it as his existence. Compulsory rules do not create a world. Ultimately, however, the flaw in freedom is in subjectivity itself, in its being a possible existent. The Tosafists expressed this distinction in their words about the preference of a person who performs commandments while being commanded over someone who performs commandments without being commanded.
The reason someone who is commanded is preferable seems to be because he is more concerned and distressed about accidentally transgressing than someone who is not commanded, who can simply forget about the commandment if he so chooses [lit., “he already has bread in his basket, so he can put this down if he desires” -LM]. (Kiddushin 31a)
The greatness of a command is exactly the worry and distress that maintain the duality and the difference between limited human capabilities and the absoluteness of the command. The divine is not revealed to us as part of a natural process or as an inner nature.
Even if the source of revelation is in man’s soul and innerness, it is still experienced as transcending him and his concepts. The duality that we live in does not enable us to understand free will as creating itself outside of any external context. We constantly experience freedom from an external perspective, as a response to the causal frameworks in which we live. This stance creates nihilism, because there is nothing in our existence that contains absolute, non-relative, meaning.
In such a state, the need to justify the unjustifiable, to turn the external into the internal by way of apologetics that deny duality, arises. This process receives its meaning fromthe effort involved, and makes a person stubborn and militantly heroic. It rarely achieves its goal, because its lack of integrity actually strengthens the nihilism. The path to freedom is not in ignoring duality but in accepting it, as the Tosafists taught, for tension that is one with itself ceases to be tension.
Duality requires the compulsion and externality of revelation, but the individual chooses to accept them. The individual opens himself to being shaped; gives up his hold on the way things are in order to enable the creation of the plane of holiness. The compulsion, accompanied by the fear of returning to the primordial chaos, reflects man’s inability to create his own existence, and the fear of our familiar world crumbling away. In the affirmation “we will do and we will understand,” a Jew enters a world he did not create, the rules of which are not tailored just for him, and only there can he feel the holiness and achieve oneness. This is the meaning of the ability to say “I am who I am,” which Rav Hillel of Paritch says was granted by the revelation of the Torah.
When inner truth is revealed as an available option, man’s freedom to choose himself, to accept himself as he is and where he is, is revealed. Choosing that which is compulsory for him brings a person to inner oneness; it opens him up to the existence that rests within him. The “nullification” involved in putting “we will do” before “we will understand” lets a person hear the speech that creates the Torah, the letters whose roots start beyond conscious thought and external significance. The power of hearing creates a space for holiness, inspiration, and revelation.
 Lekutei Torah Bemidbar 12:3.
 Maimonides, Laws of the Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6. [Translation taken from chabad.org and edited for clarity. ~Levi Morrow].
 Ibid, 10.
 Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:46.
 Ibid, 37.
 Ibid, 50.
 Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, p.209.
 Sefat Emet, Bemidbar, Shavuot 5631, p.22.
 Lekutei Torah.
 Kuntrus Hahitpa’alut of the Mittler Rebbe, p.58.
 “Normally if a person takes an object home from the market, has be purchased its owners? But God gave the Torah to Israel and said to them, ‘It’s as if it is me that you are taking,” Shemot Rabbah 33:6.
 Bavli Shabbat 88a.
 Pelah Harimon, Shemot, p.240.
 Bavli Kiddushin 31a.