(In preparation for Shavuoth, I would like to share with you a shiur that will illuminate certain elements of the Torah and our acceptance of it. I have quoted a number of first- hand sources, including sections of Masecheth Shabbath; Tifereth Yisrael, the Maharal’s work on the subject of the Torah; and a small section of the Shlah based on a Zohar. My comments are inserted in parentheses.)
Talmud Bavli, Shabbath 88a:
“And they stood underneath the mountain” (Shemoth 19). Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisdah said: This teaches that G-d held the mountain over their heads like a bucket and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, your burial place will be there.” Rav Acha bar Yakov said: From here is allowed a disclaimer of their responsibility for acceptance of the Torah. Rava said: Despite this, they again accepted it [willingly] in the days of Achashveirosh, as it is written (Esther 9) “The Jews validated and accepted…” They validated what they had already accepted.
What is the meaning of the verse (Tehilim 76) “From the heavens you sounded judgment; the earth trembled and was silent.” If it trembled, how was it silent? And if it was silent, how did it tremble? In line with Reish Lakish. For Reish Lakish taught: What is the meaning of the verse “And there was evening, and there was morning, The sixth day.” What is the need for the extra letter “hei” (meaning “the”) ? It teaches that G-d made a stipulation with the creation. He said to it: “If the Jewish people accept the Torah, you will endure. And if not, I will return you to a primordial state of chaos.”
Rebbi Eliezer taught: When the Jewish people proclaimed “We will do” prior to “we will hear,” a heavenly voice announced: “Who revealed this secret to My children, one that the Heavenly Angles utilize? As it is written (Tehillim 103) “Bless G-d, His angels, mighty ones, doers of His will; to listen to the voice of His words.” First doing, then listening.
Tosafoth, Shabbath 88a
He held the mountain over their heads like a bucket . Yet they already had committed to “We will do” even before “we will hear”?! (Why was it necessary to force them to do something to which they had already agreed? Imagine a contract negotiation, where, after both sides had agreed on all the clauses, one of the parties pulled a gun and threatened the other party with immediate death if he didn’t sign the contract that both had already agreed upon!) (Tosafoth gives the following answer:) He was worried that they might retract their agreement after seeing the strong fire (the immense power of the Torah, which consumes those who violate it).
Maharal, Tifereth Yisrael, Ch. 32
This response (of Tosafoth) is not clear. The merit of having willingly accepted the Torah has never ceased throughout the generations, remaining as an eternal merit for the Jewish people. Yet, what merit exists in such a forced acceptance? Furthermore, if there was concern that they might retract their acceptance, then let G-d hold the mountain over their heads when they would attempt to retract, rather than doing it in the beginning!
(The Maharal disagrees with Tosafoth, and has an entirely different approach to why G-d forced acceptance of the Torah, despite the fact that there was willing acceptance.) The reason that G-d held the mountain over their heads (forcing their acceptance of the Torah) was so that the Jewish people would not say that the Torah was accepted at their discretion, implying that if they wouldn’t have wanted to, they wouldn’t have had to accept it. Given the nature and greatness of the Torah, it would have been inappropriate that its acceptance be at the discretion of the Jewish people. Since the existence of the entire world is dependent on the Torah, for without Torah the entire world would return to primordial chaos, it is not appropriate for the Torah to be dependent on the choice of the Jewish people. G-d compelled and required acceptance of the Torah, since the continued existence of the world depends on the Torah. Without acceptance of the Torah, the world would return to primordial chaos.
Just because they had already declared “We will do and we will listen,” don’t think that it was unnecessary for G-d to hold the mountain over their heads! Certainly the main purpose (of holding the mountain over their heads) was not to prevent retraction of their agreement to accept the Torah. Why should they retract after their declaration “We will do and we will listen?” Rather, the element of compulsion was an inherent necessity. An optional Torah which would be in the world simply because the Jewish people happened to choose it is a very different Torah than one that was in the world as an inherent imperative for the existence of the world. Therefore, G-d held the mountain over their heads as a barrel, for if they did not accept the Torah, the foundation of all existence, the world could not continue, and the barrel would turn into their grave.
Another reason G-d held the mountain over their heads was so they shouldn’t be able to claim that their acceptance of the Torah could be an annulled. Since they had originally been the ones to decide to accept the Torah, doing so voluntarily, they should be able to absolve themselves of their commitment to it at a later date. Therefore G-d held the mountain over their heads to tell them that they were compelled to accept the Torah, and anything that exists as a requirement and an obligation cannot later be annulled.
Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar Ch. 14
… As G-d revealed Himself on Sinai, twenty-two thousand chariots of angels descended with him. … and they were arranged in a system of banners… Since Israel saw them arranged in a system of banners, they began yearning for banners. They said “Would that we would be arranged with banners as they are.” Therefore it is written “He brought me to the ‘house of wine,’ ” referring to Sinai where Torah was given, since Torah is compared to wine… “And His banner over me was love.” Would that he will increase (“increase” is spelled with the same letters as “banner”) His love upon us. … G-d said to them: You longed for banners. I promise to fulfill your request…” Immediately G-d showed His love for Israel and said to Moshe “Go and arrange them with banners as they craved. “Every man on his banner with an insignia.”
Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar Ch. 10
G-d expressed great affection for the Jewish people by making banners for them, similar to those of the Holy Angels, so that the tribe of Reuven should be identifiable as itself, and the tribe of Shimon identifiable as itself. How do we know that this was an expression of His love for them? It says (Shir HaShirim 2) “He brought me to the ‘house of wine,’ and His banner over me was love.”…
Rebbi Yehuda says: “He brought me to the ‘house of wine,’ ” to the great wine cellar, referring to Sinai, and it was from there that we learned Torah which can be expounded in forty-nine ways to reach a conclusion of “pure” and forty- nine other ways to render the decision “impure.” The numerical value of the letters of the word “and his banner” equals forty-nine.
(What is the connection between the banners and G-d’s love for the Jewish people? And how does this relate to Sinai and the giving of the Torah?
(Every angel has a distinct and unique personality, and a unique and distinct role to play. No angel is like any other angel, and no angel looks to do any other task except the one assigned to him. As G-d descended on Sinai to give the Torah, a Torah which demands a conformity of obedience, the Jewish people saw this quality of the Angels, and longed to have it embodied within their own national structure. Each tribe should have its own personality, its own identity, and its own mission, just as the angels. The love of G-d for the Jewish people is evidenced by his treating each one as an individual, giving each one a unique personality and a special mission that is aligned with that personality. The fact that the Torah can be expounded in forty-nine ways to reach one set of conclusions, and forty-nine other ways to reach an alternative set of conclusions, indicates how all- encompassing the Torah is.)
Shla’h HaKadosh, Torah Or, Breishith 1
G-d, the Torah and man and interconnected…The Torah carries the imprint of G-d, and man carries the imprint of the Torah…The Torah is six hundred thousand letters, which are the six hundred thousand souls of the Jewish people…. Additionally, the Torah is two hundred forty eight positive commandments and three hundred and sixty five prohibitions, reflecting the dimensions of strict justice (prohibitions) and mercy (positive commandments), and reflecting the limbs (248) and blood vessels (365) of man.
(The parallel between the letters of the Torah and the souls of the Jewish people is indicative of how encompassing the Torah is, and how each member of the Jewish people has a unique and identifiable role to contribute towards bringing the totality of the Torah into the world. Every Jew has a dimension of the Torah that he must reveal and communicate in the world. Just as a Torah scroll is invalid if even part of one letter is missing, the Torah is incomplete if any Jewish soul fails to communicate its message or play its role.
(There is a balance between the willing acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” we will do and we will listen; and the imperative nature of the Torah, as indicated by G-d holding the mountain over their heads. Forced adherence to the Torah emanates from the natural authority that is exerted over man by the will of G- d. But in being subjected to that authority, the Jewish people longed to maintain their individuality. “We will do and we will listen” is the commitment and desire of the Jewish people to imitate the angels. Every angels proclaims “We will do,” committing to perform whatever duty G-d has created him for, knowing that the duty will be aligned with the personality, resources and talents G-d has given him, while knowing that no one else can fulfill his unique role. The secret of absolute commitment was discovered by the Jewish people during the Siniatic experience. Giving them roles that were aligned with their individuality was a manifestation of the love G-d had for the Jewish people. “He brought me to the ‘house of wine,’ — Sinai –and His banner over me was love.”…)