Everyone knows the famous words our ancestors spoke at the foot of Mount Sinai 3328 years ago, when G-d came down and offered them His Torah. They said “Na’aseh V’nishma - We will do all the commandments that You ask of us, and we will obey them” (see Exodus 24:7). Thus, the Jewish people declared their resolve to do and obey whatever G-d would command – even before the commandments were issued.
The Talmud in Shabbos 88a tells us, through an oral tradition, an entirely different story. Based on the verse in Exodus 19:17 that says that the people stood “at the bottom of the mountain”, the Talmud teaches that G-d lifted up the mountain over the heads of the Jewish people, and gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse – either you accept my Torah here and now, or I’ll bury you under this mountain. Seeing that they had no other choice, the Jewish people accepted the Torah!
How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction between the written version in the Torah, and the oral tradition, as recorded in the Talmud?
I would like to suggest an answer, based on the commentary of the Mahara”l of Prague, the great 16th-Century Torah scholar and mystic, who was famous for having created the “Golem” monster which protected the Jewish people from their anti-Semitic neighbors.
When we decide as parents to lay down the rules of conduct for our children, there are two seemingly contradictory approaches that we must take, if we are to be successful.
First, we have to get across to our kids that we love them dearly and that any rule or boundary that we set for them is only with their best interests in mind. This way, we can at least hope, that when we tell our independent teenager that she can’t stay out later than 10:00 P.M., she can accept that without too much resistance. And when we tell the eight-year-old not to play with Daddy’s handgun because it’s potentially dangerous, he can somehow sense that our intense love and concern for him propels us to lay down that rule, and he can therefore abide by it without a fuss.
Yet, all this is not enough. The mere fact that our children trust that we care for them and willingly accept our authority over them, is not enough of a safeguard to keep them out of harm’s way. I mean, would you leave a sharp knife around the kitchen near where your five-year-old is playing, because he once told you that he accepts upon himself to listen to all your rules and warnings, because he knows that you love him? I know I wouldn’t! At least not until my child understands that - whether or not he likes it - these are the rules of the house and they are absolutely necessary and vital for his safety and proper development.
So, you see, there’s a delicate balance we need to find when raising our kids. We must convey to them our deep love and concern for their welfare, so that they can accept our rules without rebelling. And, at the same time, we have to make it absolutely clear to them that these rules are crucial for their proper, healthy development, and are, therefore, to be followed exactly as they are told, whether the kids like it or not.
So, too, explains the Mahara”l, did our great Father In Heaven do for us when He gave us Life’s Little Instruction Book – the Torah – at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago. First He showed us how much He cares for us by performing all those really cool miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. This was G-d’s way of preparing us for the Torah He planned on giving us. We were so grateful to Him for taking us out of bondage, and were so convinced that G-d had only our best interests in mind, that we gladly accepted His Torah without even questioning what was inside it. We eagerly declared “Na’aseh V’nishma – We trust You, G-d, and we will do and obey whatever You ask of us”.
But that wasn’t good enough for G-d. He wanted us to realize that the absolute values and ethical truths that are in the Torah and that are brought out through the various positive and negative commandments are absolutely crucial for our spiritual health and development, whether or not we understand them or like them. So G-d (metaphorically) lifted this huge mountain over our heads and told us the most important message we would ever hear as a nation – “You are embarking on a mission to bring the truth of My Torah to the nations. In the coming centuries and millennia, you will encounter many false ideologies and value systems different than your own. You might be influenced by these foreign cultures and start to rethink your (and your ancestors’) decision to abide by My rules, as laid down in the Torah. Remember, you didn’t just accept the Torah voluntarily – I made you accept it because the Torah represents My values, absolute values, values that your souls can’t afford to live without.”
Ultimately, this duality of the voluntary acceptance of an ethical and spiritual code on the one hand, and the forced submission to the Higher Authority Who authored that code (and Who knows us and loves us better than we know and love ourselves) on the other hand, is the essence of religion.
If we are merely to pick and choose morals and spiritual guidelines that fit neatly into the pattern of our self-defined lives, and that we have voluntarily accepted upon ourselves because G-d has been good to us – then whom are we really serving, G-d, or maybe ourselves? By having the mountain over their heads at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people – my ancestors and yours – took upon themselves to start the first religion and to bring the beauty and absolute morality of that religion to the rest of the world.
This Saturday night, as we begin to celebrate the festival of Shavuos, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago, we must remember well the lesson of the mountain suspended over our ancestors’ heads. Sure we have to learn, probe and question the things our religion requires of us, so that it becomes something meaningful to us – something that we want to live by and lovingly accept. But at the same time we must know that even if we don’t fully comprehend all of its laws and teachings, the Torah and the absolute values that it represents are our lifeline, and the spiritual dimension that it introduces into our lives is something we Jews can hardly afford to do without.