MOUNTAIN MOMENTUM: SHAVUOT
Shira Smiles shiur 2019/5779
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
The Torah tells us that when Bnei Yisroel accepted the Torah, they were encamped betachtic hahar/under the bottom of the mountain. The common translation of “at the foot of the mountain” is not as accurate as the one here presented. It is this unusual phrasing that gave rise to the medrash that Hashem held the mountain over them as a barrel and said to Bnei Yisroel, “Either accept the Torah or there will you be buried.”
Here we have a problem notes Rabbi Bernstein in The Call of Sinai, citing the Gemorrah. If Bnei Yisroel were coerced into accepting the Torah, how could they later be held accountable for transgressing its commands? Even if we assert that generations later, after the miracle of Purim, Bnei Yisroel accepted the Torah wholeheartedly, with love, the initial question still remains. But Tosafos reminds us that Bnei Yisroel had already accepted the Torah, and already responded with naaseh venishma/we will do and we will listen. If that is the case why did Hashem feel the need to force them to again accept their commitment?
Rabbi Roberts offers a response from Tosfos that then raises additional questions. Hashem encircled the mountain with fire, and there was thunder and lightning. Perhaps this display would frighten Bnei Yisroel and they would retract. To prevent a retraction, Hashem coerced Bnei Yisroel into confirming their acceptance of the Torah.
But why did Hashem feel it necessary to bring the fire in the first place, asks Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv? What is its symbolic significance? Further, Why does the medrash say, “There will you be buried,” rather than the more logical, “Here will you be buried?” Perhaps the answer is somehow connected to the concept that our acceptance of the Torah is reenacted every year on Shavuot.
Rabbi Schorr continues by putting a positive spin on this medrash. Perhaps it was not so much coercion as protection. Hashem surrounded Bnei Yisroel as if in a barrel to create a protective bubble over them, that Bnei Yisroel should be constantly enveloped in holiness, for if they venture out of the holy confines of Torah, they will be negatively affected by all the influences of the outside world and they will surely die. Rebbetzin Smiles presents an interesting analogy to this idea. How many non smokers are affected by second hand smoke in their environment, their home or workplace, and die as a result, even if they had never smoked a cigarette in their lives. We do not act in a vacuum. Our actions affect both the physical and metaphysical world. The sins of the generation of the flood affected the behavior of the animals too until the animals also needed to be destroyed. Perhaps less esoteric is Hashem’s commanding Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves and to tell the people to move away from Korach who had challenged Hashem’s choice of leadership and thus rebelled against Hashem lest they all die because of Korach’s sin.
But one cannot always be surrounded within the four cubits of Halachah. Most people must go out into the word on a regular basis, most often to earn a living. If we are constantly surrounded by an impure environment, how can we protect ourselves from being infected? We have to create our own bubble of Torah and mitzvoth wherever we go, continues Rabbi Schorr to live a halachic life, for whatever we do and hear is also part of our environment and should be the stronger part. In your own home, imagine there is a sefer Torah on your table. How would you act in front of that Torah? Our children are living sifrei Torah. Let’s remember to act appropriately in front of them.
Boaz who would marry Ruth and be the ancestor of King David lived in the chaotic and degenerate era of the judges. When he went down to his fields and greeted his reapers, he greeted them with, “Hashem is with you,” to remind them to behave appropriately, especially around the gleaning women. The reapers understood and responded with, “May Hashem bless you.”
Perhaps we can understand this more clearly with an example from Rebbetzin Smiles. When a woman is pregnant, she is very careful of her environment, both of things she can sense and things she may not even see, like x-rays. She knows these may put her baby at risk. Our environment may be toxic to our neshamah, and we should be as careful of spiritual toxicity as of physical toxicity. Our environment should be not only smoke free, but also tumah free, free of spiritual contamination. Let’s begin the process of creating a Shabbos home three days in advance. The sacred spirit will grow.
Hashem gave us the Torah at Sinai and continues to gives us the Torah all the time. However, asks Rabbi Roth in Sichot Eliyahu, are our hearts fully open to receive it, or are our hand barely outstretched, hoping Torah will fall in [like a toddler trying to catch the ball. CKS]. On Shavuot, our entire focus should be on accepting and appreciating the Torah. That’s why there are no other mitzvoth specific to this holiday as there are with other holidays. Just as at the moment of matan Torah the skies opened, Hashem descended and Moshe ascended, so do the skies open on every Shavuot so that we can rise up to connect to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
According to the Maharal, when Hashem finished creation on the sixth day, He stipulated that the continued existence of the world was contingent on the other sixth day, the sixth of Sivan when the Torah would be offered to Bnei Yisroel. If Bnei Yisroel would accept the Torah, the world would continue to exist; if they did not accept, the world would revert to void and chaos.
In Heorat Derech, Rabbi Weissblum expounds on the Maharal. In order to impress on Bnei Yisroel the urgency of accepting and observing the Torah, it was necessary for Hashem to put the people in mortal fear, for that is the only thing the physical body understands. Under these circumstances, accepting the Torah became an obligation rather than a choice. The mindset becomes that there is no other option. Otherwise, one stays within Torah bounds when one is in the mood and strays when he is not in the mood. This became an overpowering lesson to us that without Torah we would cease to exist. In other words, it is not for Hashem’s benefit that we accept and observe the Torah, but for our own, for that was the purpose of our being created. This idea is again reinforced with having no other mitzvoth to perform on Shavuot, for on Shavuot Hashem judges us for the spirituality we will attain for the entire year.
Until our arrival at Har Sinai, Hashem had given us everything to survive, including our freedom. Bnei Yisroel could easily expect the Torah to be given to them just as freely. This gift was different, writes Rabbi Weiss in Matnas Asher. It required a sense of responsibility and commitment. Bnei Yisroel had to understand that the commitment continued through difficult and tragic times and when Hashem concealed His presence from us. Even in those times, we accept the yoke of Heaven.
It is to these difficult times that Hashem was alluding when He surrounded the mountain with fire, for our stand at that mountain and our acceptance of the Torah was the source of the enmity of the other nations against us, explains Rabbi Roberts. When the nations realized their mistake in not accepting the Torah while we did, they sought to destroy us through pogroms and the Holocaust. The fire on the mountain warned them that, although they could expect a wonderful afterlife, the passage in this world would not be easy. With that foresight, perhaps Bnei Yisroel would renege on their original agreement. Therefore, Hashem had to force them to accept.
Using a verse from the piutim in the Maariv/evening prayer of Shavuot night, Rabbi Hofstadter in Darash Dovid, takes this idea to an even more profound level. The verse states: “The Righteous One held up the mountain over the exquisite and beautiful one, like a barrel and like a canopy.” As is evident, the changes here give a
softer meaning to the imagery. First, Hashem is referred to as the Righteous One. Even more interesting is the addition of a canopy over the heads of Bnei Yisroel who are referred to here as exquisite and beautiful. The imagery evokes a wedding ceremony more than a threat. In fact, that is how Rav Hofstedter interprets this medrash, for the entire ritual at Har Sinai is often compared to a wedding between Hakodosh Boruch Hu and Bnei Yisroel.
When a couple marry, perhaps the most significant part of the ceremony is the signing and reading of the marriage contract. Don’t the new husband and wife want to remain sensitive to each other and do for each other forever? Why do they need a contract? Certainly, they do, but over time that sense of commitment and willingness may fade and, unless there is an actual obligation, performance of all the mundane duties and the heightened sensitivity to one’s spouse may fade over the years and the many challenges in life. In our analogy, the chupah canopy is the mountain, and the kidushin is the transfer of the Torah.
In line with this analogy, the medrash can be understood from a completely different perspective. According to Rabbi Schlesinger, Bnei Yisroel understood that there is a wide gap between accepting a commitment and actually living up to the commitment. In this interpretation, Rabbi Schlesinger contends that Bnei Yisroel requested that Hashem help us withstand the wiles of the yetzer horo by forcing us to accept the Torah, as we say in our morning prayers after the brachot, “Vechof et yitzreinu lehishtabeid loch/And compel our evil inclination to be subservient to You.” Our innate desire is to serve Hashem, but the yetzer horo sometimes puts other factors in our path to divert us.
Continuing the positive interpretation of this medrash, Rabbi Mintzberg z”l in Ben Melech explains that Hashem’s holding the mountain over us was an expression of love, of surrounding us with a loving hug to protect us, and we returned that hug as we surrounded the Mishkan on all four sides. Bnei Yisroel wanted to go under the mountain, to be embraced by Hashem. According to the Ben Melech, there was no coercion.
In other words, says the Darash Dovid citing the Chasam Sofer, there are two simultaneous ideas in play here. On the one hand, Hashem is our Master and is compelling us to serve Him, for if not, He has the power to kill us. On the other hand, He is also our “Husband” surrounding us with love at our marriage. We have the choice of which relationship we want with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, writes Rabbi Druck z”l citing Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l. Although we need to have fear of Heaven, we should not serve Hashem in order to get a reward, but as part of a loving commitment to Him.
In this scenario, the fire represents the heat of passion, writes Rabbi Biederman. We should maintain a love and passion for Torah learning and for mitzvoth. A home needs to be filled with joy and enthusiasm at the privilege of being a Jewish home. This is a fire that Hashem enjoys.
But the naaseh venishma of Sinai continues even today and involves the same commitment as it did then, writes Rav Eisenberger in Mesillot Bilvovom. Every time we take on a new service for Hashem, it becomes a permanent commitment [barring unusual circumstances].Rav Eisenberger gives the example of someone who commits to become an EMT for HATZALAH, goes through the training, but after several months decides it is not for him. He is not free to leave that service. It becomes a permanent commitment. Similarly, if you begin adding certain aspects to your regular davening, they become a mandatory part of your regular prayer schedule and may not be abandoned. Further, any level of Judaism you were bequeathed from your parents becomes a personal commitment.
To bolster these points, Mesillot Bilvovom cites the experience of a nazir. When he committed to these restrictions on his lifestyle, the commitment was set for a specified amount of time. Yet when that time is complete, the man must bring a sin offering to the Temple. Why? Although he has committed no sin, he is now descending to a normal life from the exalted lifestyle of a nazir.
We are approaching the holiday of Shavuot. The name itself is significant, continues Mesillot Bilvovom. A shvuah is an oath, and we again vow to observe the Torah. But we should take the oath in joy, as a bride under the wedding canopy, feeling the embrace of Hashem, our Beloved.