Many people would love to hear God speak -- the more directly the better. What better transcendent experience can there be?
But today, as we wander through the spiritual desert of our modern times, we feel the lack of communication with God. If only God would make Himself known to us, perhaps we could end the internal schism and clear away all doubt.
After hearing God speak at Mount Sinai, the people told Moses: "You speak to us, but don't let God speak to us, lest we die..." (Exodus 20:16)
How could the generation who had the opportunity to speak with God choose not to?
Furthermore, of what death were they afraid? The Jews had reached the 50th level of spiritual purity, the level at which all traces of the physical world -- even death -- are left behind. They had reached the level of Adam before the sin and were free of the internal Yetzer Hara. As the Talmud says (Shabbat 146a): "...When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the 'filth' ended (that the Snake had brought to the world through Eve)."
What were they afraid of, and why?
In the Amidah prayer, we begin with the blessing, "Blessed are You God, the Shield of Abraham." The Sages say that the blessing is "Shield of Abraham" -- and not Isaac or Jacob -- for specific reasons.
According to Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam (in the name of the Chasam Sofer), Abraham required more protection than the others. Abraham, whose central trait was chesed (kindness), was constantly out helping others. He did not discriminate between those who were sincere and those who cheated as a way of life. He even attempted to intercede for the people of Sodom. As a result, he was constantly subjected to negative influences that even his greatness could not fully overcome. He therefore required special protection from God.
Ironically, Abraham's goal to care for others could have resulted in his own turning away from God! The very trait that led to his greatness also contained the potential for his downfall. As the Talmud (Avot 1:7) says: "Stay away from a bad neighbor; do not join to evil."
Just as kindness can create circumstances which ultimately have a negative effect, so too can love. As the Talmud says (Yerushalmi Brachot): "If a person acts out of love, then they won't hate. If they act out of fear, then they won't rebel. But if they act out of love, then they can rebel."
Love creates attachment, but it does not guarantee loyalty. An "open" heart does not discriminate, and in the end can seek to find virtue even where it does not exist. Though the reason for loving may be sincere, the consequence of it can be fatal.
GETTING TOO CLOSE
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (20th century England) says this is what the Jews feared at Mount Sinai. They couldn't help but feel great love for God, but they also sensed within themselves the potential to love other things as well, and eventually betray God. An intense relationship with God -- speaking "face-to-face" -- meant a greater expectation of commitment and loyalty, the lack of which would bring even greater Divine retribution -- i.e. death. Therefore, they sought to lessen their level of relationship with God and the expectation of loyalty. So they retreated behind Moses.
"If they act out of fear, then they won't rebel..."
Fear of God, "seeing" Him at all times -- Who He is, what He is, and appreciating the consequences of misplaced intentions -- is the checks-and-balances for love. It means that when the heart gets up to wander, it is reminded of where its love belongs. It causes a person to be discriminating about the recipients of that love. This means taking the time to know whether or not it is ultimately correct to love what the heart seeks to love.
This is the kind of love required to receive Torah from God Himself. A love that is balanced by fear. For only this love is true. Unbridled love, like an unbridled horse, can ultimately be destructive.
Consider the case of Nadav and Avihu, as described in the Torah (Leviticus 10:1):
The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, (in their great joy) took pans and placed within them fire, and put them on the incense altar and offered before God a strange fire... And a fire went out from before God and consumed them, and they died.
After waiting for months until the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu were so anxious to get close to God that they took incense-filled fire-pans and rushed into the Holy of Holies. They had positive intentions -- to get close, unite, connect. But we see from here that sometimes too close is not good for our own self-identity. They had been motivated by their intense love of God, but their lack of fear left their love unchecked, and destructive.
This lesson is made clear to the people at the giving of the Torah, as described in Exodus 19:12:
Make a border around (the mountain for) the people to say: Watch yourselves that you don't climb the mount... for you will die.
This instruction is so important that it is repeated in verses 19:21 and 19:24.
God says: Though you will wish to scale the mountain to come as close to Me as possible, do not do so, for your love must be constrained. It may be as intense as you wish, but you may never lose sight of Whom you love and why you love. For on the day that you do, your heart will wander elsewhere and you will abandon Me altogether.
This is a key lesson of Shavuot. Knowing where to set the boundary.