5760 - #34


The prevalent understanding of the Torah’s perspective of history is one of regression. Numerous sources point to a recognition that previous generations were greater than later generations.1 Yet, numerous sources also point to a reality of progression within history. The weight given to later Halachic authorities as “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” is one example that reflects the consciousness of progression (and also regression). Maimonides’ view of Messianism2 is another. A third is found in T.B. Shabbat 88a with reference to Revelation.
In this gemara, Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa teaches that, at Sinai, God raised a mountain over the heads of the Jewish People and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, there will be your graves.” In response, Rav Acha bar Yaakov stated that this threat furnishes a strong protest against the fulfillment of Torah obligations. As the original acceptance of Torah was done under duress - the threat of death - the Jewish People should not be obligated to fulfill their contractual obligation with God to observe the Torah. Rava concludes that, although this protest may have validity, the argument is no longer applicable for the Jews re-accepted the Torah, of free will, in the times of Achashveirosh.
3 The gemara is describing a case of progression in history. The original Revelation at Sinai contained an inherent difficulty, a difficulty that was only solved later in history in the times of Achashveirosh.
There are many theories presented to explain the uniqueness of the Jew or of the Jewish People. Some, such as the Tanya or the Kuzari turn internally, describing this uniqueness as inherent in the soul.
4 Others, such as Rambam, Letter to Ovadiah the Ger turn outside of the individual, describing this uniqueness in the influence of Torah. To the Rambam, it is not nature that describes Jewish distinctiveness but rather nurture. The nation of Israel transformed through the influence of Torah, through the values of Torah affecting and influencing the people over time. Thus, the nation achieved a uniqueness that would eventually permeate within their very being.
To imagine Revelation is to imagine the impossible, to imagine the most awe-inspiring of events. To hear God speak; to hear God command; is there any other possible response but to commit oneself to observe His commandments? Whether the aggadic statement in the gemara is to be understood literally - that God actually did raise the mountain - or figuratively, is not the essential issue. To a nation, newly freed by the Divine, experiencing the most awesome encounter with God in history, there would be no choice but to declare yes, to commit to Torah. And yet, this yes would be problematic for the very essence of God would be missing in this acceptance. One overcome with awe often cannot see beyond the awe, to truly recognize the Object of their awe.
In asking that the Jewish People accept the Torah, God wished for the Jewish People not only to observe Torah but to understand that Torah was the proper standard by which to live their lives. This is the nature of a contract. One wishes to enter into a contract because it is beneficial to do so. In asking the Jewish nation to accept the Torah, to follow Torah not solely because it is the imposition of the Divine Will, is to ask the nation to understand that Torah is beneficial. It is furthermore asking the nation to understand the Giver, to strive to understand God. In the awesomeness of Sinai, the nation accepted Torah in the midst of the power of the moment and the Majesty of the Divine. As Maharal, Gur Aryeh, Shemot 19:17 points out, this was also necessary. Yet, a true understanding of God in relation to Torah and the nation was lacking. We did not understand the essence of God and Torah We lacked the ability to agree to the contract.
But how could the nation know the essence of Torah and God, the Giver of Torah? The only answer is Torah itself. The nation could not fully agree at Sinai, not solely because the beneficial nature of Torah was not explained,, but also because the nation itself did not have the proper perspective within to understand the beneficial nature of Torah.
5 It is only immersion in Torah itself that transforms the individual so that he/she may understand the very benefit of Torah. Only in the immersion of Torah, in the awareness of its very dynamic could the nation grasp Torah and God and declare acceptance with understanding. Through Torah, the nation progressed and grasped Torah and so declared, in the time of Achashveirosh, a new, full commitment of free will.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 On the issue of regression and progression within history, including references to various sources, see Rabbi Shnayer Z. Leiman, From the Pages of Tradition: Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants, Tradition 27:3 (Spring 1993), pp. 90-94.

2 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, chap. 11.

3 This gemara obviously presents numerous difficulties. If God’s threat would cause a problem, why would God “raise the mountain” and threaten? Why the need for acceptance - do we not follow Torah because God so commands/ What is the problem of the threat - do we not follow Torah, to some extent, in fear of punishment? If the original acceptance of Torah was problematic, how could the Jews, during the period between Sinai and the historical Purim, be held responsible for not following Torah? See, further, the various commentators on the Talmud page including Rashi, Tosfot, Ramban, Ritva, Ran, Pnei Yehoshua.

4 This is not to say that the Kuzari and the Tanya share the same definition of uniqueness. I would contend that their perception of this uniqueness inherent in the soul is, in fact, different.

5 Reference should be made to the famous midrash that God approached all the nations to see if they wished the Torah. See Sifri, V’Zot HaBracha 2 and T.B. Avoda Zara 2b. According to this line of reasoning, the nations were not incorrect for attempting to understand whether Torah was beneficial to them or not. Their mistake was in thinking that they had the very ability to evaluate.

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