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BOTTOMS UP

by Rabbi Shimon Wiggins    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Let us ask a seemingly ridiculous question: Where were the Children of Israel during the giving of the Torah? At Mt. Sinai of course! But that is precisely the question. Were the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai or were they under Mt. Sinai?

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Let us ask a seemingly ridiculous question: Where were the Children of Israel during the giving of the Torah? At Mt. Sinai of course! But that is precisely the question. Were the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai or were they under Mt. Sinai?

In this week's Torah portion, it says that Moses brought the Children of Israel towards Hashem and they stood at the bottom of the mountain (Exodus 19:17). The Hebrew word tachtit is translated as "bottom" in the simple understanding of this verse. However, the word tachtit also means "under". The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 88a) explains that Hashem took Mt. Sinai and turned it upside down, holding it over their heads. With the threat of Mt. Sinai literally looming over the Children of Israel, Hashem said to them, "If you will accept the Torah, that's fine. But if not, then you will die!"

It seems, from the Talmud's explanation, that the Children of Israel accepted the Torah under duress. This is a mind-boggling proposition. What happened to the famous slogan and great merit of the Jewish nation: "Na'aseh venishma, we will do and we will hear"?! These words were uttered by the entire Jewish people prior to receiving the Torah at Sinai. By declaring that they would fulfill the entire Torah, before it was actually given, the Jews demonstrated deep trust and faith in Hashem. The Midrash tells us that Hashem found this declaration so precious that He sent angels to adorn each Jew with two crowns -- one for Na'aseh (doing) and one for Nishma (listening). Therefore, how could the giving of the Torah have taken place under duress?

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (the Maharal), the seminal thinker of the 16th-century, gives us an essential insight to resolve this problem. Without question, the Children of Israel had free will. They had the ability to choose whether to accept the Torah or not. Furthermore, without question, they willingly chose to accept the Torah even before it was given. However, Hashem gave the Torah to the Children of Israel in a threatening way to teach us an invaluable lesson. Torah is essential to the existence of the Jewish people and the world. Without Torah, the Jewish nation will cease to exist, society will collapse, and the world will self-destruct. Torah is not just for spiritual highs and for when we choose to take it. Torah is indispensable!

This is the understanding of Hashem turning Mt. Sinai over and saying, "If you choose not to accept the Torah, then you will die!" The Jewish nation understood then and for all eternity that it cannot exist without Torah.

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Rabbi Shimon Wiggins is a teacher at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

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