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Torah Take It or Take It!

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat relates two apparently contradictory ideas relating to Matan Torah. On the one hand, the Gemara praises the behavior of Bnei Yisrael for proclaiming "Na'aseh ve'nishmah" after being told by Moshe that Hashem would be giving them the Torah:

"Rabbi El'azar said: When the Bnei Yisrael gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will listen,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, 'Bless Hashem, His angels, those mighty in strength, who perform His word, to hearken to the voice of His word.' first they fulfill and then they hearken." [1]

On the other hand, there is the famous Gemara[2] that relates how Hashem forced Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah:

'And they stood at the bottom of the mountain' (Shmot 19:17) Rabbi Avdimi the son of Chama the son of Chasa said, "This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, held the mountain over them like a barrel and said,  'If you accept the Torah, it is good. And if not, here shall be your graves.'"

Immediately there in the gemara Tosfot[3] asks the obvious question: Why was it necessary for Hashem to coerce Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah if they had already proclaimed: "Na'aseh ve'nishmah"? Tosfot answers that the coercion was necessary lest Bnei Yisrael retract their commitment when Matan Torah would actually begin out of fear of the "aish ha'gedolah", the "great fire". In other words, though Bnei Yisrael showed full commitment to accepting Torah and Mitzvot prior to Matan Torah, the overwhelming impact of the revelation itself could be deterring and could cause them to go back on their conviction. Hashem avoided that possibility by forcing their decision.[4]

The Maharal of Prague[5] however refuses to accept Tosfot's approach. He argues that the statement of Am Yisrael: "Na'aseh Venishmah", is held in such esteem by Chazal that it is unthinkable that this commitment was so fragile that it would not be upheld by them at the moment of truth.

The Maharal then goes on to explain the reason why despite "Na'aseh Venishmah", Hashem still forced them into accepting the Torah.

It is to be understood from two perspectives:

Firstly, from the perspective of the Torah. Explains the Maharal, that since the existence of the world is dependent on the Torah, and without it the world would not be able to endure, it would be inappropriate that the acceptance of the Torah would hinge upon the decision of Am Yisrael. This would imply that it is possible to accept the Torah and equally possible not to accept it, when in truth this is not so. Just like the creation of the world came about by the will of G-d, not dependent on man's free will to sanction creation, so too the existence of Torah in the world, which is essentially inherently an indivisible part of the reality of the world itself, came into the world solely by the will of G-d.

Secondly, from the perspective of Am Yisrael. Had the Torah been accepted only after Am Yisrael had freely accepted it, it would imply that the Torah could be accepted by Am Yisrael and could equally not be accepted by them, when in truth this is not so. The Torah is intrinsic to the essence of Am Yisrael, and like the creation of Am Yisrael itself, which was by the will of G-d, so too the synthesis of Torah and Am Yisrael is by the will of G-d and cannot be severed.

Rav Kook expounds[6] this idea by noting that though a human being has free will, their free will is limited to choosing either this or that. However, willing itself is not something one can choose. Man is defined by the fact that he wills, and he has no free choice whether to will or not. All man can do is will or choose one thing or another. There really is no truth in saying "I don't want to", the accurate way of saying it is "I want not to". Therefore, since "the Torah is the expression of the essential self of man, by betraying Torah one is estranging oneself from oneself and changing one's nature for the worse, 'changes his countenance and sends him away' (Iyov 14;20). Therefore it rightfully must be that just like will is imposed upon man, as that is his essence, so Torah is similarly imposed on Am Yisrael as it is their essence.

As we prepare for Shavuot, Zman Matan Torateinu, it is important to appreciate and perhaps reevaluate our relationship to Torah and its meaning and value. Is Torah a part of my life or is it life itself?


[1] 88a.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid d"h cafah aleihem.

[4] I apologize for the somewhat superficial explanation of the Gemara and Tosfaot. The subject demands a much deeper understanding of what it means "Hashem coerced" by holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel. As well, the notion of Am Yisrael being frightened by the "great fire", warrants further explanation, as indeed Bnei Yisrael were overwhelmed and scared at Har Sinai as the Torah says:  "And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. They said to Moshe, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let G-d not speak with us lest we die." (Shmot 20;15-16.) The people are not rebuked for this either. This all deserves clarification beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.


[5] Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael Chapter 32. (Seems not coincidental that it is chapter –lev –heart of the book Tiferet Yisrael which is devoted entirely to explaining the meaning of Torah and its connection to Am Yisrael.)

[6]Rav Kook, Eiyn Ayah, Shabbat 88a.



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