An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

For most of the Torah, the people of Israel are always complaining about something, whether lack of water, food, or even meat. Whenever anything worries them, they always seek to return to Egypt. One of the few times they don't come across this way is when they receive the Torah.

Not only are willing to accept the Torah, but they even seem enthusiastic about it:

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יי נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will hear!”

According to many commentators, the order of the phrase "we will do and we will hear" suggests that the people of Israel are so enthusiastic for the Torah that they are willing to observe it even before they "hear" what is in it.

In one Midrash, the people are heavily rewarded for these two words:

דרש רבי סימאי בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים אחד כנגד נעשה ואחד כנגד נשמע

Rabbi Simai taught: When Israel accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over the declaration “We will hear,” 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to “We will do” and one corresponding to “We will hear.”

Despite Israel's eager acceptance of the Torah, another famous--or maybe infamous--Midrash teaches that God forces Israel to accept the Torah, making them an offer they couldn't refuse:

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם אמר רב אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אף על פי כן הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר

The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

God picks up Mount Sinai and suspends it over the people of Israel, threatening them. If they are willing to accept the Torah, they are allowed to live. If not, God will kill them all by crushing them with the mountain. Only many years later, after the miracle of Purim, does Israel completely accept the Torah voluntarily.

There are many problematic dimensions to this Midrash.

First, as Rashi draws out from one of the lines of the passage, the narrative has important ramifications for the degree to which we can be held culpable for not fulfilling the Torah:

מודעא רבה - שאם יזמינם לדין למה לא קיימתם מה שקבלתם עליכם יש להם תשובה שקבלוה באונס:

"Large caveat" -- that if they are called to judgment as to why they [the Jews] do not fulfil what they have accepted upon themselves, they are able to respond "Our acceptance was coerced [and therefore null]."

In response to this challenge, the Gemara answers that Israel accepted the Torah voluntarily after the Purim miracle. It still begs the question of how they could have been punished for their sins before that point. It also makes us ask what is so significant about the Purim miracle that they fully accepted the Torah then (though more on that later).

Furthermore, we must wonder why such a threat was even necessary in the first place if the Israelites proclaimed their acceptance of the Torah by saying "we will do and we will hear."

The Talmudic commentary Tosafot tries to respond to this latter question:

כפה עליהן הר כגיגית - ואע"פ שכבר הקדימו נעשה לנשמע שמא יהיו חוזרים כשיראו האש הגדולה שיצאתה נשמתן...

"Held the mountain over them like a barrel" - Even though they had already said “We will do and we will listen”, perhaps they retracted when they saw the great fire [on the mountain] that caused their souls to depart [...]

According to Tosafot, Israel willingly accepted the Torah, but got scared when they saw the fire and heard the thunder at Mount Sinai. In their fright, they sought to back out of accepting the Torah, which led God to "make them an offer they couldn't refuse."

Another explanation is given by the 16th century rabbi and Jewish philosopher, Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, otherwise known as the Maharal of Prague:

ויש לומר גם כן שלכך כפה עליהם ההר כגיגית, שלא יאמרו ישראל כי יהיה חס ושלום בטול לקבלת התורה, כי מרצונם קבלו ישראל ואפשר להפטר מדבר כזה שהרי לא נעשה בהכרח רק היה אפשר לקבל ואפשר שלא לקבל, ולכך כפה עליהם ההר כגיגית לומר שהם מוכרחים לקבל התורה, וכל דבר שהוא מוכרח ומחויב אין כאן הסרה וביטול אחר שהוא מוכרח

One can also say that for this he held the mountain over them as a barrel, that Israel would not say, G-d forbid, that there would be an annulment of Kabbalat haTorah, because they of their own volition received the Torah and could thereby have been exempted from it. Thus G-d held the mountain over their heads like a barrel, that they would be forced to receive it. All things that are forced and necessary cannot be removed or annulled.

In other words, even if Israel had voluntarily accepted the Torah, God had to threaten the people anyway. Had Israel accepted the Torah completely by choice, it would have meant that their observance of the Torah would be subject to their whims. That is, should they change their mind, they would be able to abrogate it. God therefore forced them to show that that Torah is so significant that its observance cannot be left up to choice. In being forced to accept the Torah, Israel becomes bound to the Torah forever.

My favorite answer to this question is given by the Midrash Tanchuma, a late Rabbinic Midrash:

(ד) וְלֹא קִבְּלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה עַד שֶׁכָּפָה עֲלֵיהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר (שמות יט, יז). וְאָמַר רַב דִּימִי בַּר חָמָא: אָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אִם מְקַבְּלִים אַתֶּם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו, שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם. וְאִם תֹּאמַר, עַל הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב כָּפָה עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר, וַהֲלֹא מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁאָמַר לָהֶם מְקַבְּלִין אַתֶּם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, עָנוּ כֻלָּם וְאָמְרוּ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ יְגִיעָה וְצַעַר וְהִיא מְעַט, אֶלָּא אָמַר לָהֶן עַל הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה, שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהּ דִּקְדּוּקֵי מִצְוֹת קַלּוֹת וַחֲמוּרוֹת, וְהִיא עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת וְקָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָתָהּ, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹמֵד אוֹתָהּ אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁאוֹהֵב הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּכָל לִבּוֹ וּבְכָל נַפְשׁוֹ וּבְכָל מְאֹדוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יי אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ (דברים ו, ה).

(4) The Israelites did not accept the Torah until the Holy One, blessed be He, arched the mountain over them like a vessel, as it is said: And they stood beneath the mountain (Exod. 19:17). R. Dimi the son of Hama stated that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel: If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, your grave will be there. If you should say that He arched the mountain over them because of the Written Law, isn’t it true that as soon as He said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?” they all responded, “We will do and hear,” because the Written Law was brief and required no striving and suffering, but rather He threatened them because of the Oral Law. After all, it contains the detailed explanations of the commandments, both simple and difficult, and it is as severe as death, and as jealous as Sheol. One does not study the Oral Law unless he loves the Holy One, blessed be He, with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, as it is said: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might (Deut. 6:5).

Although Israel accepted the Written Torah, God had to force them to accept the Oral Torah. The Written Torah is relatively short (187 chapters in the Torah, 929 chapters in all of Tanakh) and simple. The Oral Torah, on the other hand, is long (there are over 2,700 double-sided pages in just the Babylonian Talmud) and opaque. It has many intricate details and requires a lifetime of study to even partially grasp it.

Aside from the difficulties of studying the Oral Torah are those of living according to its many rules. Instead of just "don't cook a kid in its mother's milk," there are many detailed instructions about how to separate milk and meat. Instead of just not working on Shabbat are many details on eating fish containing bones. These "great and small detailed commandments" are more difficult to observe.

Learning and living the Oral Torah requires much more dedication than the Written Torah alone. Since Israel was hesitant to accept this component of the Torah, God had to "make them an offer they couldn't refuse."

At the same time, the Oral Torah is necessary to ensure that the Torah is a source of life rather than death. Without it, the Torah could bring death and destruction, God forbid.

A perfect example is what to do when saving lives would require breaking Shabbat. Without the Torah, we could possibly think that one may not labor on Shabbat, even to save a life. For this reason, the Gemara creatively reads a verse in the Torah to teach that we must live by the Torah, not die by it:

ר' שמעון בן מנסיא אומר (שמות לא, טז) ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת אמרה תורה חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל אי הואי התם הוה אמינא דידי עדיפא מדידהו (ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם
Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said: It is stated: “And the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16).The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbat on his behalf so he will observe many Shabbatot. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If I would have been there among those Sages who debated this question, I would have said that my proof is preferable to theirs, as it states: “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), and not that he should die by them. In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot.

It is this sensibility that led rabbis to shut down shuls and schools all over the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Similarly, the Torah is replete with transgressions punishable by death. We would therefore think that any Jewish court would be executing people very frequently. Instead, the rabbis of the Talmud teach that the death penalty should rarely--if ever--be meted out:

סַנְהֶדְרִין הַהוֹרֶגֶת אֶחָד בְּשָׁבוּעַ נִקְרֵאת חָבְלָנִית. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר, אֶחָד לְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה. רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן וְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמְרִים, אִלּוּ הָיִינוּ בַסַּנְהֶדְרִין לֹא נֶהֱרַג אָדָם מֵעוֹלָם. רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, אַף הֵן מַרְבִּין שׁוֹפְכֵי דָמִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.”

Another example is the penalty for assault. The simple reading of the Written Torah seems to command us to do the same to the perpetrator, even if it means removing their eye:

(כד) עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן יָ֚ד תַּ֣חַת יָ֔ד רֶ֖גֶל תַּ֥חַת רָֽגֶל׃

eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

The Oral Torah, however, teaches us that this that this verse is not to be taken literally, and that the Torah is really requiring the perpetrator to pay restitution for any physical or emotional damage to the victim:

מתני׳ החובל בחבירו חייב עליו משום חמשה דברים בנזק בצער בריפוי בשבת ובושת:
MISHNA: One who injures another is liable to pay compensation for that injury due to five types of indemnity: He must pay for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.

The Torah appears to mandate stoning for rebellious children, at least those who drink while underage:

(יח) כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֣ה לְאִ֗ישׁ בֵּ֚ן סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמוֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֣נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֔עַ בְּק֥וֹל אָבִ֖יו וּבְק֣וֹל אִמּ֑וֹ וְיסְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (יט) וְתָ֥פְשׂוּ ב֖וֹ אָבִ֣יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְהוֹצִ֧יאוּ אֹת֛וֹ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֥י עִיר֖וֹ וְאֶל־שַׁ֥עַר מְקֹמֽוֹ׃ (כ) וְאָמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא׃ (כא) וּ֠רְגָמֻהוּ כָּל־אַנְשֵׁ֨י עִיר֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ וָמֵ֔ת וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יִשְׁמְע֥וּ וְיִרָֽאוּ׃ (ס)
(18) If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, (19) his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. (20) They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21) Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.

However, the Oral Torah reads in so many requirements to ensure that there was--and will never be--any rebellious child stoned to death:

בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר

There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halakha. And why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning, this being an aspect of the Torah that has only theoretical value.

In these and other cases, the Oral Torah is needed to ensure that the Torah as lived as a source of life rather than death.

We can thus better understand the image of God suspending Mount Sinai over the heads of the people of Israel until they accept the Oral Torah. It can be seen not as a threat but as a natural consequence for accepting the Written Torah without the Oral Torah. God is telling them that if they accept the Oral Torah as well, they will be able to live according to the Torah. If they reject it, Mount Sinai (where they received the Torah) itself will ultimately lead to their deaths.

But wait! Didn't the Midrash Tanchuma refer to the Oral Torah as being "as strong as death"? I believe this refers to the idea that requires a person to metaphorically "kill oneself" in order to succeed in Torah study, as per the following Midrash:

...דְּאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: מִנַּיִן שֶׁאֵין דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה מִתְקַיְּימִין אֶלָּא בְּמִי שֶׁמֵּמִית עַצְמוֹ עָלֶיהָ — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל״. Reish Lakish said: From where is it derived that matters of Torah are only retained by one who kills himself over it? As it is stated: “This is the Torah: When one dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14); true Torah study demands the total devotion of one who is willing to dedicate his life in the tent of Torah.

The Oral Torah requires metaphorical death over study in order to truly live by it. However, "killing oneself" over Torah study is preferable to living a Torah of death, in which Mount Sinai itself serves as a source of death.

The notion that God had to force Israel to accept the Oral Torah can help us better understand the Gemara's statement that Israel finally accepted the Torah voluntarily after the Purim miracle.

As the 19th century Polish Hasidic Rebbe Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein of Lublin explains, the mitzvot surrounding Purim were the first Rabbinic commandments. He also argues that, after the Purim miracle, the Oral Torah begins to develop much further:

ולכן התחלת תורה שבעל פה הגלויה לנו הוא מאנשי כנסת הגדולה שפסקו נביאים אחרונים...

אבל מזמן חורבן בית ראשון ואילך נסתם כל חזון ולא נולד עוד נביא. אבל היה התחלת תורה שבעל פה כשהדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש מאהבת הנס כמו שאמרו ז"ל (שבת פח.) ולא כקבלה ראשונה שהיתה על ידי כפיית הר כגיגית דהיינו מצד השפעת השם יתברך בלי אתערותא דלתתא. וזה נגנז בחורבן דבגלות הכל רק מאתערותא דלתתא ומצד גודל אהבתם וחשקם לדברי תורה...

ושפע אור תורה שבעל פה מתרבה על ידי רבוי גזירות ותקנות וסייגים שתיקנו חכמים. והתחלתם פורים דהמגילה הוא מצוה אחת שבעל פה שהוסיפו על תורה שבכתב...

...And thus the beginnings of the Oral Torah revealed to us were from the Men of the Great Assembly [who came after] the last prophets ceased...

But from the destruction of the first temple and onward, prophecy ceased and no more prophets were born. However, it was the beginning of the Oral Torah, as it was re-accepted in the days of Achashverosh out of love for the miracle, as our sages stated (Shabbat 88a). It was not like their first acceptance, which was through Mount Sinai being overturned above their heads like a barrel, which is from the influence of God--may He be blessed--without arousal below [human involvement]. [Prophecy] was hidden with the destruction and exile, with everything now coming from arousal below, and from their great love and desire for the words of Torah...

The flow of the light of the Oral Torah expanded through the increasing decrees, ordinances, and boundaries instituted by the sages. The institution of reading the Megillah on Purim is the first Mitzvah of the Oral Law that added on to the Written Torah...

R. Tzadok focuses on the human dimension in the development of the Oral Torah (a topic for another time) rather than our theme. However, we definitely see that it makes sense that this acceptance of the Oral Torah should come at Purim.

We can hopefully better understand the perplexing Midrash about God forcing us to accept the Torah. More important, can now better appreciate the need for the Oral Torah, especially in light of the fact that we are spending this Shavuot at home rather than in synagogue. The Oral Torah enables us to do so and make our Torah a living one.