(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
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
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"
(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."...)