- That the admonition to serve Hashem not for the sake of reward is talking to Tzaddikim, and not to the average Jew.
- That Moshe Rabbeinu succeeded in getting all of Klal Yisrael to agree to serve Hashem on this superior level.
- That as a reward for this, Hashem wanted to speak to Moshe mouth to mouth.
- That Moshe Rabbeinu further succeeded in having Hashem agree to speak to everybody mouth to mouth.
It says in Parshas Yisro (Shemos 19:3):
"And Moshe ascended to G-d, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying: So shall you say to the house of Ya’akov, and tell to the children of Yisrael. You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Me. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be a to Me a treasure out of all the peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation - these are the words that you shall speak to the children of Yisrael."
"And Moshe came and summoned the elders if Yisrael, and placed before them all these words that Hashem had commanded him. And all the people replied together, and said: All that Hashem has spoken we shall do. And Moshe took the words of the people back to Hashem."
"And Hashem said to Moshe: Behold I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you…And Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem. And Hashem said to Moshe: Go to the people and separate them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments."
The various commentaries have already dealt with many the questions that arise from these posukim, but there still remain for me some questions to ask. Firstly, why did Moshe make a change from what Hashem had commanded him? Hashem had told Moshe to divide Yisrael into two groups and address each one separately - “so shall you say to the house of Ya’akov, and tell to the children of Yisrael”. But Moshe grouped them together - “and Moshe came… and placed before them all these words that Hashem had commanded him”. Also, in the posuk “And all the people replied in unison and said: All that Hashem has spoken we shall do”, the words “All that” appear to be extra. They could have said simply “So we shall do”, or “that which Hashem has spoken we shall do” .
In order to explain all these posukim, let us first explain the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 1:3 “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, rather be like a servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward”. This is talking specifically to Tzaddikim and the sages of the generation, who are able to be servants of Hashem not for the sake of reward, but rather because of love of Hashem or because He is the Master and Ruler.
But the general population do not have sufficient comprehension to be able to withstand this test and serve not for the sake of reward. On the contrary, would that they at least succeed in keeping the Torah in order to receive a reward! Indeed, we find that Yisrael said to Moshe after they had heard Hashem speaking to them the commandments, (20:16) “you speak with us and we will listen, but let not G-d speak with us lest we die”. We see from this that they feared being punished by Hashem. All the commentaries explain that this type of fear is very inferior, but nevertheless, Hashem Himself said: (Devarim 5:26) “Would that their hearts be like this, to fear Me and to keep all My commandments all the days”. Would that the general population manage to serve Hashem even with this level of fear.
The difference between these two levels of service can be illustrated with a parable about a king who had a certain job which needed doing, and this work required great and wise workmen. So the king announced that anyone who is certain about himself that he would be able to complete the job should come, and he will be paid handsomely. Now, this job was very precious and beloved in the eyes of the king, and he wanted to give honor and greatness to the one who would complete the job. One day, two men came, and they informed the king that they would complete the job well. However, they were not both of the same mind. One said to the king: My lord, the king, if you give me such and such as my wage, I will complete the work well. But the second one said: I’m not interested in any reward, rather I’m only interested in giving satisfaction to my lord, the king, to fulfill his desires, because such is the obligation upon all servants of the king, that they should aspire only to do the will of the king.
When they had finally completed the work, both of them came before the king to show him their work. The king then gave to the man who worked only for a wage all his wages according to what he had stipulated, but he did not show him any honor since he did not desire the good of the king, but rather only his own welfare. So it made no difference in the craftsman’s eyes whether his employer was the king or a commoner - he would do the work for anyone who would pay him that wage. Therefore, he did not deserve anything more than his wages.
But the second one, who was not particular about receiving a wage, but rather he had stated that all he wanted was to do the will of the king, to fulfill his desires, by this he greatly honored the king. Therefore the king paid him measure for measure, and honored him by appointing him as one of the king’s ministers, and by making him very wealthy.
So too someone who serves Hashem and keeps His Torah not for the sake of reward, but rather to give satisfaction to his Creator because this is what Hashem desires, and feels obligated to listen to Him because He is the Master and Ruler, since he is concerned for the honor of Hashem, so too Hashem gives him honor and raises him to greatness, to make him as if he rules over Hashem, so to speak, and as if he is also holy. Like Chazal said in Bava Basra 75b, that in the future angels will proclaim before Tzaddikim “Holy”, just like they do before of Hashem. Chazal also said in Moed Koton 16b, that a Tzaddik rules through his fear of Hashem. Hashem says: Who rules over Me? A Tzaddik, because I make decrees, but a Tzaddik is able to annul them. So we see that Hashem appoints the Tzaddik to greatness, so that he is, so to speak, ‘above’ Him.
But someone who serves in order to receive a reward, who is not intending to give satisfaction to his Creator, intends only for his personal good and not to honor Hashem. Thus Hashem does not give him honor. He gives him only the reward that he deserves for every mitzvah that he does.
These are the two groups that Hashem told Moshe to address separately: “So you shall say to the house of Ya’akov”, that is the general population, “and tell to the children of Yisrael”, this refers to the Tzaddikim, as is well known. To the general population you shall say, “You have seen that which I have done to Egypt”, so you know that I have the ability to punish those who transgress My will, “and I carried you on eagles’ wings”, and that I give reward to those who do My will”. Thus we have fear of punishment and love of reward. “And now, if you will surely listen to My voice” - even if it is only in order to receive reward, even so, “you will be to Me a treasure from all the nations”, - I will give you great wealth, like one places in a treasury. Hashem will give all the blessings and success to Yisrael, and from them will come also to the nations, so that the nations will receive the essence of the blessings of Yisrael, as is clear from the Zohar, and other seforim. This is what it means, “And you will be to Me a treasure from all the nations”, that the blessings of all the world will be in the hand of Yisrael, so that Yisrael is like a treasury, and through them all the world will receive its blessings. But still, I will only give you wealth, but I will not raise you up to greatness.
“But you”, those of you who are like Moshe Rabbeinu, who do not serve for the sake of reward but rather because of love of Hashem, “will be to Me a kingdom of ministers”. Just like Hashem is called the One who causes kings to reign, because He appoints kings and removes kings, so too you, the Tzaddikim, will rule in the world - the Tzaddik will make a decree, and Hashem will fulfill it. “And you will be a holy nation”, similar to Me, who is holy, and I will raise you up to a position of great power. “These are the words which you shall speak to children of Yisrael” - which you will address specifically to the Tzaddikim.
But Moshe, with his great righteousness and his great love of Hashem, wanted to turn the hearts of Yisrael towards good, so that even the general population will serve Hashem not for the sake of reward. Therefore, Moshe did not want to divide Yisrael into two separate groups and to tell the general population only the first part, “you have seen what I did to Egypt...”, because then they would not hear the second part, “and you will be a nation of ministers...”, and consequently the general population would not know how much more superior is one who serves not in order to receive a reward, and how inferior is one who serves in order to receive a reward, and so they will never come to serve not for the sake of reward. Therefore, Moshe gathered all Yisrael together, in order that they would also hear what he spoke to the Tzaddikim, how they merited greatness because they served not for the sake of reward, and by doing this it is possible that they will also come to this level. And behold, he was successful, “and all the people replied together: all that Hashem has said, we will do” - not according to the way Hashem divided the address, that we should serve for the sake of reward and the Tzaddikim should serve not for the sake of reward, but rather "all that Hashem has said", even that which He spoke to the children of Yisrael, the Tzaddikim, we will also do.
Thus, entirely due to Moshe Rabbeinu were the hearts of all Yisrael changed for the better and they acquired this good trait. Because a great Tzaddik, with his holy mouth, can change the heart of a person, to turn it towards good. As it is written in Yirmeyohu 15:19 “if you bring forth a precious person from a glutton, you shall be like My mouth”, so we see that He attributes to the Tzaddik the bringing forth of the precious person from the glutton. So too said Chazal on the posuk in Bereishis 12:5 “and the souls they had made in Haran”, that because Avrohom and Sarah had returned the people to the correct path, it is as if they had created them. Here also, in the merit of Moshe and because of him, the people replied that they wanted to serve Hashem not for the sake of reward.
But the Torah relates to us that it never occurred to Moshe to be arrogant about it, to think that he had brought about this great thing, but rather “Moshe returned the words of the people back to Hashem”, that is, he attributed the greatness to the owner. To Moshe’s mind, he was returning the words of the people to Hashem, because their decision to love Hashem and to serve Him not for the sake of reward was from Hashem. Hashem had put this in their hearts, and it was not he, Moshe, that had caused this.
But Hashem knew the truth, and that it was Moshe who effected this great thing, and that about him it is written, “if you bring forth a precious person from a glutton, you shall be as My mouth”. Therefore, justice demanded that he be rewarded with Hashem speaking to him mouth to mouth, since he is considered like the mouth of Hashem, as the posuk says. Thus the Torah continues that Hashem said to him, “Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud” - to speak to you alone, mouth to mouth, and not to them. And the reason why I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud is “in order that the people hear when I speak to you”, because without a cloud they would not be able to bear it. But even in a cloud I will not speak with them, only with you.
Therefore, Hashem did not command them at that point concerning the three day separation. This is like the parable brought in the Midrash on parshas Lech Lecha, on the posuk Bereishis 16:13 “Have I seen here after I have seen”, about a king who said to a matron: Pass before me. She did so, supporting herself on her handmaid, but she averted her face and did not look at the king. But the handmaid did look. We explained elsewhere the meaning of the Midrash, that just as with a mortal king, somebody that the king is gazing at will not able to raise his eyes to look at the king, because of his fear of the king who is gazing at him, but someone standing at his side, and at whom the king is not gazing, will be able to raise his eyes to look at the king. So too it is with Hashem. Here also we can explain, that since initially Hashem wanted to speak with Moshe by himself and not with the people, therefore the people did not need the three day separation to sanctify themselves, and they could listen just as they were.
But Moshe was not happy with this, and so “Moshe related the words of the people to Hashem”, that is, Moshe started to make arguments before Hashem, and to relate to Him their words. He said that since they were also great Tzaddikim, and they love Your name so much that they said “all that Hashem has spoken we will do”, agreeing to serve not for the sake of reward, therefore they are fitting to merit that You speak with all of them mouth to mouth. Hashem accepted to his words, and since He now intended to speak to all of them mouth to mouth, they now needed the three day separation in order to sanctify themselves. Therefore, He now commanded Moshe, “Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow”. This answers all our questions.