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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
The Torah appears to mandate stoning for rebellious children, at least those who drink while underage:
However, the Oral Torah reads in so many requirements to ensure that there was--and will never be--any rebellious child stoned to death:
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:
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:
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.