The Voice Never to Be Repeated

Parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

by Hana Guzman, Beth Messiah, Montgomery Village, MD

At the opening of this week’s parasha, the Israelite people are standing ready to enter the Promised Land as Moses reminds them of their covenant with God on Mount Sinai. Following the repetition of the Ten Commandments, Moses says:

These words Hashem spoke to your entire congregation on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick cloud – a great voice, never to be repeated – and He inscribed them on two stone tablets and gave them to me (Deut. 5:19, Artscroll).

The Hebrew phrase velo yasaf, translated here as “never to be repeated,” is somewhat ambiguous and can also mean “which did not cease.” Our sages have therefore provided multiple interpretations for understanding these words:

  • This event was a one-time occurrence – God would never again appear so publicly to the people.
  • The voice was so intensely powerful, it spoke without interruptions.
  • The voice continued to be heard for the entire forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai.
  • The voice did not repeat, or the voice had no echo.
  • The voice continued to speak through subsequent prophets.
  • The voice was not spoken just in the Holy Tongue, but in the languages of seventy nations.

What is the significance? A few thoughts.

When Moses introduces this retelling of God and the people at Mount Sinai, he says:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?  Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deut. 4:32-33, NIV)

The voice of God was so tremendous that it frames Moses’ entire conception of Israel’s particularity. This is the guarantee of God’s covenant to the people. The power and singularity of the event becomes the evidence that God will not forget his covenant with their fathers.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that in times when our lives seem challenged or resistant to the mission given to us at Mount Sinai, it may seem that Torah or this covenant does not fit with the reality we face. And yet the sages teach that the voice of Hashem had no echo. An echo is created when sound waves meet resistance – instead of absorbing the waves, a substance repels them, bouncing them back. By this reading therefore, the voice of God permeates every object in the universe, so that any resistance or conflict we may feel is only superficial and temporary. Ultimately, as God created all things, so the essence of every thing is consistent with what its Creator desires. (chabad.org/parshah/in-depth.)

In recognizing this, we are better equipped to understand our relationship to both God and the world around us. The sages teach that the Jews were exiled among the nations to elevate the sparks of holiness there, and ultimately inspire all of Creation to know its Creator.

So too the Torah is relevant for more than just the Jewish people. The sages say that the voice was spoken to seventy nations, or to the entire world: they too received the word of God at Mount Sinai. The imagery of a voice being spoken out of the fire into seventy languages simultaneously is remarkably similar to the picture we have in Acts 2.

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. . . . When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. (Acts 2:2–4, 6, NIV)

We know as believers in Yeshua that God’s word continues to be revealed to us, through the intimate relationship he has given us with the Holy Spirit. This is the continued reminder of God’s covenant with us, as well as of our mission to the world.

I’ll venture to add a final interpretation to the mix. Other publications have translated Deuteronomy 5:19 differently:

The Lord spoke those words – those and no more – to your whole congregation at the mountain (Deut. 5:19, JPS).

A pshat, or plain reading of the text might suggest that quite simply, God finished talking – and we are not to add or subtract from his narrative. This is consistent to prior verses:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you (Deut. 4:2, NIV).

We live in a society of post-truths and alternative facts, one that seems quite casually inclined to distort reality. Our God is El Emet, the God of truth. God’s voice is powerful, awe-inspiring, and fearful – with incredible promises for us. We cannot take it lightly, but must endeavor relentlessly to understand God’s words.

Each day, we encounter the Shema in our daily prayers; this week, we also read it in the parasha. This command to “hear” hearkens to our understanding of God’s voice. As we recite the Shema together with Jews across the world, let us hold fast to the promises assured by God’s voice to us. God, as the ultimate Creator, desires relationship with us. We in turn must truly listen for his voice.

Stephanie Escalnate