“Not with our fathers did the LORD seal this covenant but with us–we that are here today, all of us alive.”
— Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:3
Robert Alter offers an important commentary on the “unique event at Sinai that is the very matrix of collective memory in Deuteronomy.” All future generations of Israel were present at Sinai, according to midrash. And this midrash is part and parcel, Alter says, of “this rhetorical strategy of the evocation of witnessing in Deuteronomy.”
In precisely this connection, it should be noted that there is a purposeful ambiguity of reference in the use of the second person, whether plural as here, or singular as often elsewhere, in Moses’s address. Since we are reminded of the episode of the spies early in the first discourse (1:22-45), with the consequent death sentence on the Wilderness generation, we know that all the people standing before Moses now would have been under the age of twenty, perhaps most of them, indeed, as yet unborn, at the time of the events recalled in this speech. Yet Moses repeatedly speaks as though they were all direct participants in or observers of the episodes he mentions. There is, I would say, a slide of identification between one generation and another….[The listening generation is] invited to see itself experiencing what the Wilderness generations underwent, or at any rate, to see the experience of their forebears as a compelling model for its own historical predicament.
….It is not the image of God but His incandescent presence that the people of Israel experience through their history, and the powerful rhetoric of the book is the means that evokes this presence.