God’s original plan for revelation was auditory. The Jewish people had seen enough of God’s wonders to allow them to believe, and the time had come to listen. The essence of a covenantal relationship, to use the language of Rav Soloveitchik, is the “redemptive, sacrificial gesture” involved not only in obeying (“we will do”), but even more so in listening to the other, even when one disagrees. But in chapter 19, when the Jews respond “we will do”, the famous response “we will listen” is absent. They’re not yet ready to enter the covenant by listening.
So when God explains that the nation will hear His words when He speaks to Moshe, Moshe knows the people’s reaction without even asking them. Rashi, merging two Midrashim, brings the unwritten text of the conversation. “I already heard an answer to this…We want to see our King!” The Jews need a revelation of God with the immediacy and concreteness of the visual.
God, whose invitation to covenantal listening has been rejected for the time being, has the opportunity instead to model it, by acceding to the Israelite’s request despite knowing the repercussions. The physicality of the visual demands much more rigorous preparation. Clothes and bodies must be purified, and to touch the mountain becomes deadly. A physical encounter with the Divine, and the temptation that comes with it to cross boundaries, is dangerous. But the most significant repercussion of the people’s request was not the preparation demanded, but the radical change in revelation that it ultimately dictated. The most difficult thing that covenantal listening requires is to let the other make a huge mistake, and to lovingly walk them through the consequences of their decision. This mistake might just have been the biggest missed opportunity in the history of the Jewish people. But more on that in chapter 20.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 19 was last Wednesday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il