Shavuot commemorates the greatest moment in human history ― the Revelation of God on Mount Sinai.
Despite the obvious importance of the event, the nature and content of the revelation remain somewhat obscure. What was revealed? And when? There is also confusion regarding the response of the Israelites to the revelation.
Rashi, citing Michilta, explains that all of the Ten Commandments were revealed simultaneously, in a manner "which a person can not possibly articulate," or, to use the language of the Midrash, "that which a mouth could not say, nor could ears hear."
If, indeed, God spoke all Ten Commandments at once, no one could possibly have understood a thing. But what was the purpose of a revelation that the people could not understand? And, why would God speak in a manner that they couldn't hear?
Seeing The Voices
The verse immediately following the Ten Commandments states:
And the entire nation saw the voices and the thunder, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain was consumed with smoke. The people saw and were frightened; therefore they stood at a distance. They said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will hear, but God shall not speak to us lest we die." (Exodus 20:15-16)
Here the Torah tells us that the people saw the sounds, and this frightened them. They ask Moses to speak, in order that they might hear. Moses counters, and tells the people:
"Do not be frightened. God desires to uplift you, that the fear (awe) of God will be upon you, that you will be unable to sin." The people stood from afar, and Moses approached the mist from where God [communicated]. (Exodus 20:17,18)
That the people saw, rather than heard the sounds, is further confirmed by the very next verse:
God said to Moses, "Thus tell the people, "You have seen that from heaven I have spoken with you."" (Exodus 20:18)
And by the words of Rashi:
They saw the sounds; they saw that which is usually heard, that which was impossible to see under different circumstances. [Rashi 20:15)
Again the verb "see" is used instead of "hear," and we get a picture of God speaking in a miraculous way ― it is a communication that the people can see, but cannot hear. And when God invites them to listen, they were so awestruck that they recoil and miss that opportunity.
Thus far our understanding is that God spoke in a manner which was unmistakable. The revelation was completely supernatural. No one could doubt that the sounds ― which they "saw" ― emanated from God.
However, the people still did not know what God had said, because they could not hear. Therefore, God began to repeat the commandments in a manner which the people could hear.
It was at that point the people missed their historic opportunity, failed to seize the moment, and asked that Moses speak instead. Our Sages teach that the first two commandments were given by God prior to the people making the plea to Moses. [see Rashi 19:19 based on Makkot 24a)
To make matters even more complicated, we are taught, in the subsequent Torah portion:
God said to Moses, 'Ascend to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah, and the commandments, which I have written for instruction.' (Exodus 24:12)
This verse seems to indicate that the Torah which Moses received at Sinai was more than the Ten Commandments. Rashi explains:
All 613 commandments are subsumed in the Ten Commandments. (Rashi 24:12)
This teaching complicates matters even more. We now ask: Did God communicate all 613 Commandments at Sinai, despite the fact that the people could not hear even one word?!
Ten Or 613?
That the communication at Sinai consisted of ― or was to have consisted of all 613 commandments ― is a theme which is well-developed in Midrashic, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic thought. If the Torah which Moses received at Sinai contained all 613 commandments and this is what we mean by "Torah from Sinai," then perhaps this may also explain the nature of the revelation per se.
If all 613 commandments are included in the Ten Commandments, then when God said all ten simultaneously, surely God must have communicated all 613 commandments at once!
If this is indeed the case, we may understand why the people were unable to hear, but they were able to "see."
The Sages explain that Moses received the totality of Torah at Sinai ― everything from the Ten Commandments through the question raised by the "precocious student, commenting in front of his master" millennia in the future.
This was certainly more information than the people could possibly have assimilated at one time, in terms of quantity and substance.
In that case, we return to our previous question: What was the purpose of a revelation of Torah which the people could not have heard?
Seeing Vs. Hearing
Let us consider the fundamental difference between seeing and hearing: A person can see an incredible amount of material at once, but may only hear and comprehend one sound at a time.
The nature of the revelation at Sinai should be understood in this context. The primary significance of the revelation was the unmistakable fact that the ineffable, transcendent God was, in fact, communicating with man.
In order to accomplish this, the nature of the communication had to be fundamentally different from any other ever known. The reversal of the senses, or the suspension of the boundaries between vision and hearing, which make up our perceptions, established this as a completely supernatural experience.
The second aspect of the revelation was the presentation of the entire Torah as one organic whole. This required that vision be employed instead of normal hearing. Only if the people saw what would otherwise have been heard, could they take in the entire Torah in the way God wanted it presented.
The third aspect was that God wanted the people to hear all the details. After the entire Torah was presented at one time, God began to enumerate the commandments one by one.
The first objective was clearly accomplished, and the revelation at Sinai was so powerful an experience that it has served as the basis of faith for millennia.
The second objective was accomplished as well, and the people received a complete, organic vision. But without the details ― which constituted the next step ― they could not appreciate it.
The difference between seeing the beauty of Judaism, versus listening to the details, is ultimately the difference between an "appreciation" of Judaism versus "observance." Perhaps we can make a leap, and say that, had the Jews been willing to listen to the details, they would never have been able to worship a golden calf.
Once the details break down, the whole system becomes lacking. The people flinched, as it were, and were not prepared to accept the Torah that God wanted to give at Sinai.
Ironically, when Moses descends the mountain, holding the tablets of stone, which were written by the hand of God and contained all 613 commandments, he sees the Jews worshipping the golden calf and throws the tablets to the ground.
The Yalkut Shimoni then says that the letters returned to heaven. The Beit Halevi explains (Drasha 18) that the letters which returned to heaven were the 613 commandments with the Oral Tradition.
There were, then, two occasions on which God desired to give man far more than the Ten Commandments, but man was simply not ready to accept that gift from God.