Parshas Bamidbar (Shavuot) 5772
By Rabbi David Zauderer
The Talmud in Shabbos 88a teaches:
It says, [Before the Giving of the Torah, “They [the Children of Israel] stood beneath the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). Said Rabbi Avdimi bar Chama: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, suspended the mountain over their heads like an inverted barrel, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, fine. If not, there will be your graves!”
This famous passage is teaching us that as much as our ancestors accepted the Torah and all its laws upon themselves willingly when they all proclaimed as one, “Na’aseh v’Nishma – we will do and we will obey” (see Exodus 24:7), G-d still ‘forced’ them to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai by threatening to drop the mountain on their heads.
The obvious question is why G-d felt the need to force our ancestors to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai when they had already accepted it upon themselves willingly. Another difficulty in the above passage is why G-d told the Jewish people “there will be your graves”, when He should have said “here will be your graves”.
I would like to suggest the following answer (loosely based on the teachings of the Mahara”l of Prague, the great Torah scholar and mystic of the 16th century):
G-d knew that if the Jewish people would accept the Torah upon themselves without being “compelled” to do so, they might one day decide to change or modify parts of it - possibly to “update” it and to “adapt” it to modern times. After all, they accepted the Torah on their own terms, and they might feel like it’s due for a “renovation” after so many thousands of years.
So G-d (metaphorically) suspended Mount Sinai over the Jewish people’s heads and told them, “If you accept this Torah of mine the way I want it to be done, since I know best, fine. But if not, and you think you are smarter than me and can “fix” the Torah to your liking to make it more relevant and modern, “there”, i.e. after a generation or two or three, “will be your graves”, i.e. it won’t last.
So, in reality, one question answers the other. G-d wasn’t “forcing” the Jews to accept the Torah by threatening to kill them when He suspended the mountain over their heads – there was no need for that since they had already accepted it willingly. Rather, He was teaching them a very important lesson in Jewish continuity. Accept the Torah on My terms, and the way I want it, or else there – after a few generations – will be your graves, as your Judaism will die out.
Unfortunately, this is happening in our own times. In some circles, the Torah has been updated and renovated and tampered with – often with the best of intentions – but with tragic results. Maybe things were going well for a short while, but it hasn’t lasted, and their continuity and future is in jeopardy.
On the other hand, where the Torah has been observed on G-d’s terms, there has been and continues to be tremendous growth. [See for yourself an illustration of this by clicking on the following link: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/will-your-grandchild-be-jewish-chart-graph.htm]
On the upcoming festival of Shavuos (celebrated this year on Saturday evening May 26th) Jews all around the world will gather together to commemorate the most important event in Jewish (and world) history – G-d’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai 3324 years ago.
My personal, heartfelt plea to the Jewish people this Shavuos is that we take to heart the message that G-d taught our ancestors - and all of us - so many millennia ago when He suspended Mount Sinai over our heads. We need to accept G-d’s Torah on His terms, not ours – after all, He knows what He’s doing - and if we try to tamper with it, we do so at our own peril.
I love the Torah and I love the Jewish people – and I want to see them thrive together until the coming of the Messiah and beyond – so I beg of all my beloved brothers and sisters that they learn this Jewish continuity lesson well.