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Shemot/Exodus 19:7 And he put before them all these words that Adonai had commanded him
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This phrase relates Moshe's obedience to the instructions he had been given in the previous verse: "These are the words you shall speak to the Children of Israel" (v. 6).Rashi dryly comments there: "These are the words: no more and no less" to emphasise that HaShem is not giving Moshe any licence to explain, amplify or modify the explicit and exact words that He has spoken for the Israelites to hear. From this we may deduce that on other occasions Moshe was allowed to explain, paraphrase, repeat or even translate HaShem's words so that the people would be able to clearly understand and relate to what G-d was saying. The Mekhilta agrees with Rashi, adding the comment, "The first first and the last last" to suggest that Moshe didn't even alter the ordering or arrangement of the words, he simply repeated what G-d has said, verbatim.
TheMekhilta goes on to offer another thought on the next phrase, which we might not have obviously seen: "Which Adonai commanded him: also what was said for the women." The first part of this verse tells us that Moshe spoke to the elders, all of whom were men, but the next verse is going to say that all the people answered "as one", together, so the women must have been involved so that as a 50% part of "all the people", they too had heard from G-d. It is also possible that this comment implies a criticism of some rabbis and teachers at the time the Mekhilta was written, who may have excluded women from classes or discussions, treating them much less equally than the Torah requires; by suggesting that Moshe had particular things to say to the women (at Sinai) this comment is a reminder that the women were an active part of the Sinai covenant process and that G-d not only can but does and has always spoken to and through women as well as through men.
The verb at the start of the phrase, , variously translated "set or put before, explained, related" comes from the root which has a wide usage and range of meanings: set, put, place, establish, set or lay (as a fire), lay up or preserve.Saadia Gaon compares it to D'varim 31:19, "put in their mouths", with the idea of teaching; Ibn Ezra explains that the verb can be used of both speech and writing, suggesting that this might refer to the Oral Torah rather than the written Torah. Nachmanides, on the other hand, insists that Moshe is explaining and setting a choice before the people: "Let them say whether they choose to accept upon themselves the obligation to perform the mitzvot". This is not primarily a teaching venue - that will come later, if the people accept the basic obligation - but a moment of choice or decision: are you in or not?
In order for people to be able to accept a foundational truth, it has to be explained and presented to them in a clear and understandable way; if this is not done, then their understanding of and therefore their commitment to it will be weak. To ensure that the message is properly received and comprehended, that those hearing are able to fully engage with it and appreciate not only the benefits but the costs involved in acceptance, it is necessary to do two things: to simplify the content by reducing or distilling it to a small number of critical facts or points that convey the kernel or essence of the proposal; to communicate the message in clear and unambiguous language so that there should be no confusion or distraction. Once the presentation is complete, it is crucial to bring the hearers to a decision by asking them to respond; all too often a good presentation is wasted - for both the presenter and the hearers - by not asking for a decision. Although neither this nor the following verse record Moshe's question, the narrative clearly shows that the people answered and that Moshe reported that answer to G-d.
At the start of the Gospels, we find John the Baptist and Yeshua presenting a very simple call to the people to whom they spoke: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, NASB). Throughout His ministry, Yeshua teaches using parables, a format that almost always explicitly or implicitly demands a response from the hearers. After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Yeshua asks, "Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?" (Luke 10:36, NASB) so that the lawyer who has triggered the story (v.25) had to respond. At the conclusion of the story of the widow and the unjust judge, Yeshua asks, "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith in the earth?" (Luke 18:8, NASB) to force His hearers to ask themselves where they stood.
Writing to Timothy, Rav Sha'ul urges him to, "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2, NASB) that he might engage with the people amongst whom he was working; no stand-off sermons from high pulpits here but down to earth grappling and challenge using the words of the Bible. Similarly, Peter encourages the Jewish believers in the Diaspora, "always be ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15, NASB); not a hit-and-run style, quoting a Bible verse at someone and then rushing away before they have a chance to respond or refusing to debate or explain. No, G-d requires more of us than that - we must not only engage with people where they are, but be prepared to participate in, if necessary, robust argument and discussion, before asking for a decision and challenging people to respond to what G-d has said to them.
Further Study: Matthew 17:24-27; Matthew 21:28-32
Application: Are you a hit-and-run evangelist, dropping a bomb and then running for cover, or are you fearful of even speaking a few words, frightened of the flak and attention it might provoke? Either extreme falls short of what G-d requires of us by denying our hearers - whom G-d wants to reach - an opportunity to reasonably hear and respond to the message of salvation. How will you prepare for and meet that challenge today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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