The Limits of Autonomy1
Moshe took the nation out from the camp towards G-d and they stood ready
besachtis of the mountain.
Rashi: The plain sense of the last phrase is that they stood at the foot or
base of the mountain. The medrash, however, has it that He uprooted the
mountain from its place and overturned it over their heads like a barrel.
Maharal: Tosafos2 ask that the people had already fully accepted
the Torah with a memorable proclamation of na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do,
and we will listen. Why would they need to be coerced into accepting the
Torah when they had already accepted it with a full heart?
Tosafos answer that the Bnei Yisrael reconsidered their enthusiastic
acceptance of the Torah when they experienced the awesom fire that
accompanied Hashem’s Presence at the time of the Revelation. That sight
caused their souls to depart from them, and they balked at all future
contact with Him.
Tosafos’ approach does not seem proper to us. They reduce the monumental
achievement of na’asseh v’nishmah to a short period of time, after which it
vanished when the Bnei Yisrael experienced buyer’s remorse.
Although even this approach is not so attractive to us, it is possible that
Tosafos did not see the Bnei Yisrael’s backing away from accepting the Torah
as a stain on their record. HKBH knew what was in their hearts. They became
petrified by their experience of closeness with G-d, and believed that they
were simply incapable of withstanding such an overwhelming Presence any
longer. They (wrongly) assumed that a continued relationship with Hashem
would mean an endless stream of such physical and spiritual overload. They
did not realize that it was only at Sinai that they were meant to endure
such direct contact with the Divine. Their original acceptance of the Torah
was not at all diluted or refuted by this natural fear. Backing away from it
was nothing to be ashamed of.
The correct explanation of this passage, however, seems obvious. Even
though Klal Yisrael was asked whether they wished to accept the Torah,
Hashem needed to show them that Torah was not really a matter of human
choice. Torah was a necessity; without it, the world would perforce return
Hashem had, as it were, respected their autonomy. He did not impose His Will
upon them, but asked them if they were willing to accept Him as their King,
and His law as their obligation. They responded perfectly with na’aseh
v’nishmah. Because they were given a choice, it would be possible for them
(or some other generation) to regard Torah as an option, a choice that could
be exercised by those who had use for it. Torah could come to be regarded as
a great tool and a wonderful asset – but not the defining element of worldly
existence. It was critical to the future of the Jewish people for them to
understand the primacy of Torah, and how all existence was predicated on its
presence in this world as a vehicle for Hashem’s word.
Not coincidentally, after discussing the mountain held over the heads of the
Bnei Yisrael, the gemara3 turns back to the Creation story. It
cites the anomalous usage of the definite article in the case of the sixth
day of Creation. (Preceding it were “second day,” “ third day,” “ fourth
day,” “ fifth day” – finally arriving at yom hashishi, the sixth day.)
Chazal emphasize that all the work of Creation was contingent upon that
famous sixth day of Sivan, at which time the Jewish people would accept the
Torah. The two passages may be juxtaposed so that we can realize why Hashem
found it necessary to suspend the mountain over the heads of a people who
had so enthusiastically embraced the Torah a short while before.
Despite this explanation, Rava was perfectly on target in characterizing the
circumstances of kabbalas ha-Torah as “a great notification,” meaning that
the mountain poised over the heads of the people had the same legal effect
as a party to a transaction giving notice in advance that he was acting
under duress and not his own free-will. This was not because the Bnei
Yisrael accepted the Torah only because they were compelled. As we have
explained, this was not the case. They acted entirely of their own volition.
The mountain dangled above them only to teach them an important truth about
the necessity of Torah.
Nonetheless, Rava is correct. And he is correct in arguing that the
“notification” was withdrawn and nullified by Klal Yisrael’s voluntary
assumption of a new mitzvah of Purim.
This is why. What is the core flaw in a coerced transaction? You only need
to force something that does not fit flawlessly. Things that completely
belong together need not be forced together. Holding the mountain over
their heads may have shown us that a world cannot exist without Torah, but
what does that have to do with us? Where do we fit in? Showing one people
that they were compelled to receive the Torah leaves room to argue that
Torah may be organically part of the world, but not particularly related to
them! The upshot of this reasoning would be that any failing on their part
to uphold the Torah would be somewhat natural and excusable. (You can
engineer ways to suspend a rock in the air. If the rock falls after some
time, however, no one is surprised. The rock doesn’t “belong” suspended off
the ground. It has to be forced to stay there.) This was the “notification”
– an excuse for future failure to uphold the Torah as Hashem demanded.
The events in Shushan changed the equation. When Klal Yisrael accepted a new
mitzvah upon itself, it indicated that its relationship with Torah was not
forced, foreign, or jury-rigged – despite initial appearances. By accepting
a new mitzvah, Klal Yisrael demonstrated that its relationship with Torah
was essential, not accidental. Torah fits the Jewish people by essential
design – their design as much as its design. The two are, literally, made
for each other.
A medrash4 attaches the story of Sinai’s aerial suspension to
the Torah’s treatment of the rapist. “To him she shall become a wife. He
may not send her away all his days.” 5 The rape victim, at her
option, may lay claim on her abuser; he may never exercise the prerogative
of divorce. Some wrongly understand this medrash to be saying that since
Hashem compelled us to accept the Torah, He has lost the ability to ever rid
Himself of us.
That is incorrect. The law of the rapist is a reaction to sin. It has
nothing to contribute to our understanding of Hashem’s relationship with us.
Its meaning, rather, relates to the ideas we have discussed. A relationship
that is entirely voluntary, that does not reflect either essence of
tight-fit, is the easiest to break. Marriage is entered into by the mutual
choice and consent of two parties. A consensual knot can be untied. The
Torah leaves room for divorce.
When something is forced, however, it can be joined with power. A nail can
be driven into a plank in for which it has no natural affinity. Once driven,
it is difficult to remove it. By acting with force, the rapist engineers a
bond that he may no longer break, and leaves no room for choice.
When G-d forces something to happen, He can do what no rapist can. He can
make the relationship between objects something that becomes part of their
nature, something essential to their being. That is the point of the
medrash. In holding the mountain over their heads, Hashem also created a
forced relationship, stronger than a purely consensual one. In this case,
however, it was an essential one, a matter of the true inner nature of the
Jewish people. (The idea of force here is different from what we discussed
above, but the upshot is still the same.)
The bottom line is that all the different pieces can be harmonized: Hashem
asking the people to accept the Torah, rather than forcing them; their
voluntary acceptance; the suspension of Sinai over their heads that
signified a different kind of relationship. What we are left with is a Torah
that had to become part of the world, and a people perfectly designed to
accept study, understand and practice it.
1.Based on Gur Aryeh, Shemos 19:17; Ohr Chadash pg 45B; Netzach Yisrael
2.Shabbos 88A s.v. kafu