There appear to be contradictory descriptions of what occurred at Matan Torah, when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. On the one hand the nation is described as willing and enthusiastic recipients. Commenting on the verse (Shemos 24:7) “everything that God has said, we will do and we will obey [na’aseh ve’nishma],” the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) describes this statement as nothing short of “the secret of the angels” and that, as a reward, everyone present received two heavenly crowns. Rashi explains that by declaring “na’aseh ve’nishma” the Jewish people were committing to observe the Torah even before hearing – and understanding – its details.
On the other hand, earlier on the same page, the Talmud paints a very different picture. The verse describes the Jewish people as standing “at the foot of the mountain” (Shemos 19:17) and the Rabbis explain – shockingly – that this alludes to the fact that “kafah aleihem har ke’gigis,” God held the mountain over them like a cask and said to them: “if you accept the Torah fine; but if not, your burial will be here.” Far from being voluntary, here the nation is depicted as coerced and accepting the Torah only to avoid death.
Among the many commentators who attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction (see, for example, Tosafos, s.v kafah and Midrash Tanchuma, Noach #3), the Ba’al Shem Tov explains that even though the people willingly declared “na’aseh ve’nishma” God still held the mountain over them to make an important point: “This teaches that even when one is not feeling personally inspired by Torah and love of Hashem, he is not free to desist from Torah study … [he] is forced to engage in it against his will.” In other words, the two descriptions of Matan Torah anticipate and mirror two different spiritual realities. Initially the people accepted the Torah willingly and this serves as the model for the times – hopefully many – that Jews throughout the ages feel connected and motivated and choose to study Torah. However, explains the Ba’al Shem Tov, God decided to add an additional, coercive element to Matan Torah – by holding the mountain over their heads – to make clear to future generations that there really is no choice; even if a person feels disconnected and disinterested the obligation to learn remains constant and unchanged.
In a similar vein Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggests that this duality is expressed in the Birkot Ha-Torah, the daily blessings recited on the Torah. The first blessing, with the traditional introduction of “asher kidishanu be’mitzvosav ve’tzivanu,” acknowledges that we are commanded and obligated “le’asok be’divrei Torah,” to be involved with and study Torah. The next blessing – which according to some authorities is actually a continuation of the initial beracha – however, strikes a very different chord, as we say “ve-ha'arev na,” praying for God to make the Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of our children.
Here as well we speak of two different – even opposite – relationships with Torah: On the one hand we acknowledge that, just as the Jewish people were coerced at Har Sinai, it is our absolute duty – “ve’tzivanu” – to study Torah. On the other hand, just as the nation enthusiastically declared “na’aseh ve’nishma,” we aspire to study not just because we must but because we want to and because we appreciate the “sweetness” of Torah. As R. Lichtenstein beautifully notes, these blessings highlight the “fusion of duty and joy, obligation and gratification, commitment and fulfillment [that] is central to our view of avodat Hashem [and which] receives special emphasis with respect to talmud Torah.”
Nevertheless, despite the importance, and even necessity, of acknowledging the duty to learn, from an educational perspective it would be a mistake to prioritize this aspect over the joy and pleasure of Torah study. Rav Asher Weiss demonstrates this very point by noting that almost twenty times throughout the Tanach the phrase “chalav u-devash,” milk and honey, is mentioned. There is one other time, however, that the same words are used – but the order is reversed, placing honey before milk. The question is obvious: Why the reversal; why deviate from the pattern?
R. Weiss explained that it all depends on the context. The pesukim that mention milk first are referring to the Land of Israel – “eretz zavas chalav u-devash” – and when it comes to the success of a land and its people clearly milk is more essential than honey. However when the verse declares, “devash ve’chalav tachas le’shoneich” (Shir Ha-Shirim 4:11) it is referring to Torah which should be placed, metaphorically, like “honey and milk under your tongue.” And in this context, when it comes to the study of Torah, then we must reverse the order and give precedence to the “devash,” the sweetness and satisfaction that comes from Torah. It is true, of course, that Torah is the “milk of our existence” in that it is the essential ingredient which is necessary for every person who wants live a proper and spiritually healthy life. But if we teach our children by focusing on the need to study Torah – true though it may be – that approach is likely doomed to failure. Rather, urged R. Weiss, we must educate our children – and ourselves – by first showing them the “honey,” the beauty and sheer delight of Torah study, and then, and only then, can we also teach them about the critical need and importance of Torah.
As we approach Chag Ha-Shavuos and the anniversary of Matan Torah we must remember to strike this all-important balance: Just as Hashem forced the Jewish people to accept the Torah we must similarly reinforce our unwavering commitment to the absolute necessity of the Torah. And, at the same time, just as the people willingly said “na’aseh ve’nishma,” we must also increase our enthusiasm and appreciation for the pleasure and splendor of Torah study.