Shavuos 5778 part one

Coerced acceptance, part one[1]

ויוצא משה את-העם לקראת האלקים מן-המחנה ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר: ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר-דבר יקוק נעשה ונשמע
Moshe took the people out from the camp to greet Hashem, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. [Moshe] took the book of the Covenant and called out to the ears of the people. They all said: “All that Hashem says, we will fulfill and we will listen!”[2]

The holiday of Shavuos celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people[3]. It’s when the Ten Commandments were stated. Before the great revelation of the Divine, the Torah says that the Jews stood “at the foot” of the mountain. However, literally read, the verse says that they stood “under” the mountain. Chazal expound[4] that this teaches us that Hashem picked up the mountain, and held it over their heads. He said to them: “if you accept the Torah, good. But if not, then this[5] will be your burial place”. Thankfully, the Jews accepted the Torah. In fact, they later accepted it anew in the days of Achashverosh, out of love. However, this shows us that initially it was only through coercion. This seems to contradict a different verse, where the Jews proudly announced that they will do whatever Hashem commands them. This sounds like they were initially happy to accept the Torah. If so, why then did Hashem force them to accept it? How do we resolve this contradiction[6]?

Tosafos suggest[7] that Hashem was performing a preemptive measure. The revelation at Mount Sinai was supposed to be an awe-inspiring event. The Torah describes[8] that there was a loud shofar blast that wouldn’t cease. There were other ear shattering noises, as well as intense thunder[9]. The people were having an out of body experience[10], where they saw sound[11]. The entire world shook[12]. Additionally, the entire mountain was on fire, with smoke covering it. In order that the people not reconsider their devotion due to their intense fear, Hashem put the mountain over their head. They had no choice but to accept the Torah. Even though they had already accepted it willingly, this prevented them from backing out.

The Midrash offers[13] a different approach. There are two aspects to the Torah: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah is relatively easy to learn. A person merely needs read it and understand the words, without needing to put in much toil. It’s not even that long. This is unlike the Oral Torah, which is the explanations behind the Written Torah. It requires extreme diligence and intellectual powers to master. It’s as vast as the sea. The Jews said “we will fulfill and we will listen” on the Written Torah, as it wasn’t as big a commitment. The Oral Torah was much harder to accept willingly, so Hashem coerced them into accepting it as well.

However, the Maharal of Prague feels[14] that both of these explanations are unsatisfactory. As they are, they both seem to diminish the tremendous value of the Jews’ initial acceptance. Chazal teach us[15] that when the Jews first said, “we will fulfill and we will listen”, they earned the title of “Hashem’s firstborn”. Six-hundred-thousand angels came down and tied two[16] crowns to each person’s head[17]. Hashem asked: “Who revealed to my children this secret that the angels use”? We see this mode of acceptance created tremendous merit for them[18]. According to Tosafos, how is it possible to say that they would rescind their acceptance[19]? According to the Midrash, how can their acceptance be looked at as so lofty, if it was only on the Written Torah[20]?

Rather, the reason Hashem forced them to accept the Torah, even though they had already accepted it willingly, is more esoteric. Without the Torah, the world would not exist[21]. Therefore, the Torah is something that is inherently essential. Since the Torah is certain, its acceptance had to be certain[22]. Even though the Jews had already accepted the Torah willingly, it couldn’t be dependent on their free-will choice. Had it been, the Jews could have thought that it was within their power to reject the Torah[23]. This couldn’t be, due to the Torah’s essentiality. Additionally[24], Hashem’s intent was directed at His relationship with the Jews. By forcing them to accept the Torah, Hashem was strengthening His bond with them[25]. By forcing the relationship, He made it one that He[26] so to speak could never sever[27]. A connection that is optional isn’t as strong as one that is certain. A final reason, is things that are essential are inherently more valuable. Hashem put the mountain over their heads to show them how valuable the Torah is[28].

Good Shabbos and Chag Sameach


[1] Based on Marahal’s introduction to Ohr Chadash

[2] Exodus 19:17, 24:7. These two verses are in two different parshiyos: Yisro and Mishpatim. Rashi to 24:1 says that that section of Mishpatim occurred before the Ten Commandments were given. As we’ll see, it’s a matter of debate exactly when the first verse occurred in relation to the second

[3] See for more on what Shavuos commemorates

[4] Shabbos 88a; Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael Masechta DeBeChodesh § 3; Mechilta D’Rashbi ad. loc.; Tanchuma Noach § 3, as well as the sources in note 6. It’s also mentioned in passing in Avoda Zarah 2b

[5] שם תהא קבורתכם, literally: “there” will be your burial place. The commentators are bothered by this expression and have various approaches to explain why it is phrased this way. However, the version in Mechilta D’Rashbi loc. cit. says “here” will be your burial place

[6] What follows are various approaches to this issue. However, according to Mechilta D’Rashbi loc. cit., the question doesn’t begin. The midrash clearly states that they only said נעשה ונשמע (we will fulfill and we will listen) because Hashem hung the mountain over their heads. Otzar Midrashim Kisvei Yad I pg. 96, which brings a Sheiltah to parshas VeZos HaBeracha, shows this as well. However, the Tanchuma loc. cit. clearly disagrees and says that they had said נעשה ונשמע prior to having the mountain put over their heads. This is similarly evident from Tanchuma Shoftim § 8. See as well note 18. For other resolutions to this contradiction, see Torah Sheleimah ad. loc. § 224

[7] ad. loc. s.v. כפה עליהן הר כגיגית

[8] Exodus 19:19

[9] ibid verse 16

[10] Shabbos 88b says that they literally died when they heard Hashem speak, and their souls left their bodies. They were subsequently brought back to life. Tosafos imply that they knew this would happen, so they were afraid

[11] Exodus 20:15

[12] Zevachim 116a

[13] Tanchuma Noach § 3

[14] In Ohr Chadash loc. cit. he brings both explanations and asks on them. As opposed to Tiferes Yisroel Chapter 32, Netzach Yisroel Chapter 11, and Gur Aryeh to Exodus 19:17 § 22 where he only brings Tosafos’ explanation and asks on it

[15] Shabbos 89b

[16] One for נעשה and one for נשמע

[17] ibid 89a

[18] We have to say that these midrashim disagree with the sources brought in note 6

[19] In Ohr Chadash and Gur Aryeh loc. cit. he suggests Tosafos understood that if they had withdrawn their acceptance solely due to fear, it wouldn’t be considered a real withdrawal to diminish their merit

[20] In Ohr Chadash loc. cit. he explains that the Midrash Tanchuma loc. cit. doesn’t mean that they didn’t accept the Oral Torah willingly. Rather, they already had an intrinsic connection to the Written Torah, and therefore they were already prepared to accept it. This is unlike the Oral Torah, to which they weren’t as intrinsically connected. The Oral Torah therefore is viewed as something supplementary. This additional aspect of the Torah required extra preparation to accept, which was done through coercion; despite the fact that they already accepted it willingly

[21] Shabbos 88a, brought by Rashi to Genesis 1:31 s.v. בראשית ברא

[22] Ohr Chadash, Tiferes Yisroel, and Gur Aryeh loc. cit. Rav Hartman in his commentary to Ohr Chadash fn. 40 brings proofs and explanations why the method in which the Torah was given speaks to its nature and essence

[23] Tiferes Yisroel and Gur Aryeh loc. cit.

[24] In Tiferes Yisroel loc. cit. he sounds like this is an additional reason, but in Ohr Chadash loc. cit. he stresses these reasons are one and the same

[25] Ohr Chadash, Tiferes Yisroel, Netzach Yisroel, and Gur Aryeh loc. cit.

[26] It could be understood that Hashem did this so we could never sever our relationship with Him, but in Ohr Chadash loc. cit. it’s clear the Maharal’s intent is that it was to prevent Hashem from severing the relationship

[27] In the sources in note 25, the Maharal says this idea comes from the mitzvah of a מאנס, that he can never divorce the woman he had to marry (Deuteronomy 22:29). This signifies their eternal bond which started with an act of coercion. This idea is also mentioned by the Terumas HaDeshen, quoted by the Minchas Yehudah and Imrei Shefer (cited in Sifsei Chachamim) to Exodus 19:17. The Maharal says this idea comes from a Midrash which connects the acceptance of the Torah to the laws of a מאנס. Torah Sheleimah loc. cit. says that this Midrash is also quoted by Mincha Belulah, but he couldn’t locate its original source.

[28] Gur Aryeh loc. cit.

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