Up for Debate

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This module contains one key debate amongst the various classical commentaries of Chumash. 

 

In verse 19:17 the Torah describes the beginning of God offering the Torah to the Jewish people

 

וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃

Moshe led the people to meet God, and they took their places “under” the mountain.

 

The simple interpretation of the verse is that the Jewish people stood at the foot of the mountain but the Rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 88a)  understood the verse literally

 

אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם.

Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: God overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, here will be your burial.

 

The Rabbis read into the story an episode wherein God seemingly forces the Jewish people to accept the torah.This is pretty puzzling because in the text of the Torah, the Jews had already enthusiastically accepted the Torah voluntarily (19:8). Why did God force the Jews to accept the Torah?

 

The Daat Zekenim quote theclassic answer in the Midrash which states that the Jewish people enthusiastically accepted the written Torah which is the text of the Chumash. However, God had to force them to accept the Oral Torah as well. This includes the oral traditions and interpretations which can be found in the Talmud and Midrash.

The Midrash explains that the Oral Torah is much harder to understand and requires much more human investment to create, hence the  Jews were more lukewarm about it.

The Meshech Chochma interprets the entire episode more metaphorically. He explains that God didn’t actually force the Jews to do anything. Instead the passage is communicating that the revelation the Jews experienced was so powerful, it would have been functionally  impossible for the Jews to do anything but enthusiastically accept the Torah. They were on such a high spiritual level that saying yes became the only rational choice.