THE CHOICE IS YOURS
'And they stood beneath the mountain' (Exodus 19:17)
'And they stood beneath the mountain' (Exodus 19:17) -- Rav Avdimi the son of Chama the son of Chasa said that this teaches us that Hashem held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them, "If you accept the Torah, fine, but if not then this will be your burial place". . .Rava said, even [though they were forced to accept it at Sinai], they accepted the Torah [willingly] in the days of Achashverosh (during the Purim story) as it is written, "The Jews confirmed and undertook upon themselves" (Esther 9:27) -- they confirmed that which they had already undertook -- (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 88a).
On the upcoming holiday of Shavout we joyfully celebrate our acceptance of the Torah, Hashem's wonderful life-giving gift to the Jewish people. We can imagine the extraordinary scene in the Israelite camp at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the air filled with an unworldly electrical excitement, as they anticipated the momentous occasion which was about to occur.
Indeed, even before learning the detailed commandments in the Torah and before carefully analyzing the incredible ramifications it would have on their lives, the entire nation pronounced the words "na'aseh vnishma -- first we will do and then we will listen" (Exodus 19:17). It didn't even matter what was in the Torah. If it was the word of G-d which would somehow enrich their lives and allow them to fulfill their potential as human beings, then they were willing to embrace it with open arms. However, if all of this is true, why was it necessary for Hashem to force the Jewish people to accept the Torah, threatening them with the horrible death described in the passage above? Weren't they planning to accept it anyway?
The Ba'alei Mussar, the famed 19th century teachers of Jewish ethics, offer the following enlightening and inspiring explanation to answer this apparent contradiction. (Please see Rabbi Shimon Wiggins' article entitled "Bottoms Up" in Issue VIII on Parshat Yitro for an alternate answer to this question.) The Jewish people had just witnessed the most incredible miracles and wonders ever seen by mankind. Hashem had taken them out of Egypt with the ten plagues, delivered them through the Red Sea as the Egyptians drowned, fed them with the heavenly manna, and finally brought them to the foot of Mt. Sinai. As a result of these spectacular and awe-inspiring miracles, the entire nation had arrived at the ultimate level of recognition and belief in Hashem's greatness and truthfulness. They came to the crystal-clear realization that it would be impossible to live without the Torah. If Hashem intended to offer them instructions for living, the foremost book of truth, they were left with no choice -- they had to accept it. Their recognition of the truth was so clear that they perceived life without the Torah to be tantamount to burial beneath the mountain. Hence, from their point of view, a refusal to accept it would have brought their lives to an immediate and untimely ending.
However, almost one thousand years later, after experiencing the improbable Purim story recorded in the Megillah which appeared to unfold in a completely natural manner, the Jewish people were left with free choice. Living in the exile after the destruction of the First Temple, during a time of "hester panim" in which Hashem's actions could not be seen clearly, the generation of the Purim story had not witnessed any open miracles which were in any way comparable to the wonders Hashem had performed for their ancestors so many years earlier. Since they were living amongst the nations of the world, they finally had the opportunity to choose. They could either open their eyes to see the incredible miracles Hashem performed behind the scenes, or they could have explained the whole Purim affair to be merely a conglomeration of lucky coincidences. Hashem's presence wasn't so clear. At that time, the Jewish people chose to accept the Torah, putting the final stamp of approval on the decision which had been made at Mt. Sinai. And within a short while, their period of exile ended as they returned home to the land of Israel to rebuild the glorious Temple in Jerusalem.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York.
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