Moshe had been told by G-d at the burning bush that “On your bringing the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d on this mountain.” Nechama Leibowitz commented that the repressive service of the Egyptians was to be replaced by the “service of G-d” and the spiritual bondage they were entering into signalled their release from the physical bondage.
Before receiving the Ten Commandments, they were sanctified for three days. R’ Eli Munk quoted from the Kuzari that this sanctification was so that they could hear G-d’s words. R’ Munk related that sanctification is achieved through the avoidance of sensuality. The same idea applies in preparation for marriage, indicated by the word “kidashtam” for the Israelites and “kiddushin” for a marriage. The Revelation was equivalent to the wedding of G-d to the Jewish people.
In their preparations, the people were to wash their clothes, and Moshe was to set boundaries around the mountain. R’ Munk commented that the mitzvah of “Hagbala” – setting boundaries required the people to remain distant from the mountain and to encircle it. G-d would be a communicating presence, clearly distinct and separate from them. R’ Munk quoted from R’ SR Hirsch when writing that the statutes of Israel do not originate from man’s own interpretation of G-d, creation and society, but were given by G-d and proclaim what man’s beliefs ought to be on these fundamental matters. From the beginning, the Divine law was in opposition to the people who would accept it. The power of the law had to be affirmed over this “stiff-necked” people, and their resistance demonstrated the Divine origin of the law.
G-d told Moshe he would come to him in a cloud, “arafel” so that the people would hear as He spoke to him. R’ Munk quoted Rambam who explained that the concept of arafel is a way of saying that the perception of His true being is beyond our comprehension because of the darkness which envelopes our being, not His. This great veil intervenes whenever our intelligence tries to perceive G-d, and is a reminder that man’s material substance makes it impossible for man to perceive Him.
The Ten Commandments begin with the declaration “I am the Lord your G-d” , not phrased in the form of a positive or negative precept, but a simple statement. Nechama Leibowitz quoted from the Spanish philosopher Crescas who stated by way of explanation that “faith in the existence of G-d is not one of those things governed by free will and choice.” She also quoted from Rambam who considered to be the first and most important mitzvah calling it the “most fundamental of fundamentals, and the pillar of all sciences”. “He commanded us to believe in the Deity, that is that we believe that there is a cause and motive force behind all existing things.”Leibowitz pointed out that in another of his writings, he phrased it differently-“it is important to know there is a first cause and that the knowledge of this concept constitutes a positive precept.”
Nechama Leibowitz quoted Malbim who addressed the different views.He said “Rambam changed the wording from “believe” to “know”, because he wished to stress the intellectual basis for this precept”.As we heard the first two commandments directly from G-d, they were directly and therefore intellectually apprehended. The rest are based on faith.