by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Receiving the Torah was terrifying. Mount Sinai trembled and the ram’s horn blared. Thunder and lightning erupted again and again, while smoke billowed out of the mountain like a kiln. I can’t help but wonder if all of the special effects leading up to Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) is a commentary on the way terror and terrible circumstances push people towards action. In this case, to choose God’s covenant.
The Israelites were already a people plagued with the feeling of powerlessness and a lack of conviction. We get this message early on when the Israelites are finally freed from slavery in Egypt; God is careful about what road they take.
“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout…” (Exodus 13:17).
To be fair, they had recently been freed from slavery; how could they know what they wanted having had so little opportunity to make their own choices?
Perhaps knowing this, God planned their trip to Mt. Sinai as a series of tests of their will, and an opportunity for God to convince them of its ultimate power.
At the Sea of Reeds, they saw Pharoah’s army swallowed up, where, moments before, they had walked through dry land. When they camped at Marah, they cried out for water where all of the water was bitter. Moments later, the waters became sweet. In the wilderness of Sin, the Israelites cried out from hunger and then received bread that had fallen from the sky. At almost every point they shared their doubts and considered turning back.
When they finally arrived at Sinai, things only get more terrifying. As the sound of the ram’s horn reached a fevered pitch, God threatened the Israelites. According to a midrash in Shabbat 88a (Babylonian Talmud): “‘And they stood under the mount’ R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’”
R. Abdimi is commenting on the word, btachtit in Exodus 19:17,
And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the foot of the mount.
וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃
The word for ‘at the foot of’ comes from the Hebrew, tachat, which can mean “under” or “next to.” R. Abdimi takes this word literally. God was threatening the Israelites into accepting Torah with Mt. Sinai itself. The image may be severe, but this reading continues the narrative of coercion and terror the Israelites faced on their path to becoming a people.
All of this leads me to one question: why? Is this just an example of the common parental crutch where you scare your children into doing the right thing, or is there something else here? Moreover, why is there such a sharp contrast between the texts we just described and the joyful holiday of Shavuot, where we gleefully eat dairy-products and study Torah all night?
Today, living a Jewish life is seen as a choice by some, and an obligation by others. Regardless–most of us in the U.S. have the ability to choose if and how we live Jewishly. Sometimes the choice is easy and joyful, sometimes it’s wrought, inconvenient, or simply nerve-wracking. Join me at the 8th annual Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Saturday June 11th to create a bridge between us, and our our ancestors, who trembled, cried, and balked at the opportunity to receive Torah.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She regularly experiences the terrifying and joyful aspects of contemporary Jewish life.