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Hashem tells Moshe to descend Har Sinai and warn the Jews not to ascend (Exodus 19:21). He responds (v. 23) that they cant ascend because they have already been prohibited.

  • Did Moshe argue with a direct command of God?
  • What exactly was the intent of his response?
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Rashi answers your question when he says on verse 24:

Go, descend: And warn them a second time. We admonish a person before the act [he is to perform], and we admonish him again at the time of the act [when it is to be performed]. [from Mechilta]

Moshe evidently thought that one warning was enough and the intent of his response was to understand the need for another warning. G-d taught him that you need two – one before and one at the time.

Added later:

The רא"ש asks your question.

My translation and elucidation of the רא"ש:

Moshe wanted to know how far up the mountain he could go. Moshe said as follows, “I thought that there is no need for this warning because you commanded me and Aharon my brother to fence the mountain and make it holy. If the people would break through, we would warn them because we thought that we will be with them.”

Then Hashem revealed to Moshe that after going down to warn the people, Moshe and Aharon were to ascend and that, the people, Moshe and Aharon would each be in their specific places. Therefore Moshe would not be with the people to protect them and the second warning was needed.

The דעת זקנים says

The first time, Moshe did not warn the people that the punishment for going beyond their limit on the mountain would be death. So Hashem asked Moshe to tell them of the punishment. Moshe answered that he expected to be with the people to guard them to ensure that they would not go up. To this point Hashem answered that Moshe and Aharon would not be with the people (as explained by the רא"ש).

The explanation of both the רא"ש and the דעת זקנים fits well with the next possuk which says that Moshe and Aharon were to go up on the mountain.

See also the explanation of the אור החיים.

  • I believe that the commentary traditionally ascribed to the Rosh is misatributed. One proof is that the Tur on the Torah doesnt quote it. – mevaqesh Feb 4 '15 at 0:46
  • Rashi only answers why a second message was necessary to the Jews but he doesnt say that Moshe questioned God, see R. Saadya Gaon, et al quoted below. – mevaqesh Feb 10 '15 at 18:42
  • Correction: Rashi does, but i'm not sure mechilta does. – mevaqesh Feb 10 '15 at 18:49
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The Kedushas Levi explains that Moshe was responding to Hashem according to Moshe's own perception - Moshe lived on a level where if Hashem said no, then it is impossible to disobey - Hashem's command is reality, and it's inviolable. Therefore he said "They can't come up, because You told them not to."

Hashem's response was "לך רד" - go down; go down to their level. It's true that on your level, Hashem's will creates an iron wall. But, on their level, they don't see it as an iron wall, and their desire to participate directly in this event may overcome them.

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Unlike Rashi (19:24) who understands that Moshe was questioning God,

  • R. Saadya Gaon writes that he was troubled by this verse for many years until he saw in a certain work that a servant tells his master that he has completed an assigned task upon receiving a command for the next task. Similarly, Moshe was merely telling God that he had performed his previous task (warning the Jews), upon accepting his new task (to warn them once again). (cited in Ibn Ezra to Exodus 19:23).
  • Ibn Ezra himself explains that rather than challenging the Divine command, Moshe sought to clarify the scope of the prohibition, noting that they had already been prohibited from ascending, so perhaps God's comment "lest they break forth to see" (19:21) could have been construed as a new prohibition to even see the mountain.
  • R. Avraham Ben HaRambam (commentary ad loc.) explains that rather than challenging the command, Moshe sought merely to understand it better.
  • +1 - source for R' Avraham Ben HaRambam? – Y     e     z Feb 8 '15 at 20:46
  • @YeZ its in his commentary to the Torah on the spot. – mevaqesh Feb 8 '15 at 20:48

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