We are approaching Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, as we continue to count the omer, taking us from the Exodus from Egypt to the revelation at Mount Sinai. God freed the Israelites not so that they would wander aimlessly in the wilderness, but so that they would make their way to Sinai to receive the Torah and affirm the covenant. Our tradition offers a variety of explanations of this experience that we call “mattan Torah – the giving of the Torah.”
According to tradition, all Jews were at Sinai, participating in this event that shaped us as a people. The midrash offers important insights to this event, helping us to understand our relationship to the revelation at Sinai. Two midrashim in particular offer important insights to revelation and to the nature of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
The first well-known midrash explains that before offering the Torah to Israel, God offered it to other nations. First God approached the descendents of Esau and asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?”
They replied, “What is written in it?”
God said: “You shall not murder.”
They responded, “This goes against our grain, for Esau’s father blessed him with the words, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”
Then God approached the descendents of Ammon and Moab, who also asked what it contained.
“You shall not commit adultery,” God answered.
They responded, “Our very origin is adultery. As it says, ‘Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father’ (Genesis 19:36). We cannot accept the Torah.”
Then God approached the descendents of Ishmael, who also asked what it contained.
“You shall not steal,” God replied.
They said: “Of our ancestor Ishmael it is written, ‘And he shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against every man and every man’s hand against him’ (Genesis 16:12). We cannot accept the Torah.”
After all the other nations rejected the Torah, God approached Israel, who, without inquiring what it contained, responded, “Na’aseh v’nishma/We will do and we will obey” (Exodus 24:7).
Rather than ask what was in the Torah as the other nations did, our ancestors, according to this midrash, accepted it freely, sight unseen. They committed themselves to observing its teachings without even knowing what those teachings were!
A second midrash offers a different perspective on the giving of the Torah. Commenting on Exodus 19:17, which reads in part, “They took their places b’tachtit hahar [usually translated ‘at the foot of the mountain,’ but here understood as ‘under the mountain’],” Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama said, “The Holy One lifted the mountain and held it over them like an inverted cask and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, this will be your grave!’”
In this account, the people had no choice; rejecting the Torah would have meant sure death. From this perspective our ancestors did not freely accept the covenant, but were forced to accept it.
So which was it? Did our ancestors freely enter into the covenant or were they compelled to accept it? While some Jews may prefer the first midrash and others the second, we do not have to choose between them. In fact, both of them express an important part of what it means to be a Jew, to be part of the covenant which God made with the Jewish people.
On the one hand, we are free to embrace or reject the covenant, to observe the teachings of the Torah or to turn our backs on them. Perhaps never in our history has this freedom to choose to embrace Judaism been easier.
On the other hand, the covenant continues to draw us in with a power that makes it virtually impossible to reject it. We are part of it and it is part of us. Those who are born Jewish are automatically part of the covenant — it is not a matter of choice. And many who choose Judaism speak of being drawn to Judaism by a mystical pull, so that becoming Jewish feels as if one is returning home.
Each of us truly stands at Sinai with the mountain over our heads and at the same time freely proclaims: “Na’aseh v’nishma/We will do and we will obey!” May we celebrate the giving of the Torah with joy and gratitude for this most precious gift.