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Purim 2004 / 5764 - Mt. Sinai: The Failed Accepting of the Torah

05.03.2004 by

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, page 88a, makes a strange statement. It says that when the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they didn't stand at the foot of the mountain, but, rather, under it; "Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said, ...God uprooted the mountain from the ground and suspended it over the nation like an overturned tub, saying to them, 'if you accept the Torah, fine, if not, here you will be buried.' Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov says: From here we have a tremendous argument against [obeying] the Torah". Rashi (France, Germany, 11th century) explains that Rav Acha means that if the Jews received the Torah under duress - with a mountain hanging over their heads - since a contact entered into under duress is not binding, they are not bound to keep it. If, on the Day of Judgment, a Jew is accused of transgressing a law of the Torah, he can respond that he was not bound to keep it, as the agreement to do so was entered into illegally, under threat of death.

Tosafot (a collection of commentaries on the Talmud, France, Germany, 12th-14th centuries) adds that it is not just the dramatic, miraculous suspended mountain that makes the original accepting of the Torah flawed and ultimately invalid. Rather, it is the simple fact that the Jewish people understood that it was God Himself talking to them at Mt. Sinai, as well as at subsequent occasions when they reiterated their willingness to enter into a covenant with Him. Under such circumstances, even without a hanging mountain, the acceptance of the Torah, the covenant, was still done against their wills, and is therefore null and void, not binding. After all, if it is God making the offer, it is, clearly, one that you can not refuse, and therefore, according to the thinking of this Gemara, not an offer at all.

This is a remarkable position for the Talmud to adopt. Traditionally, what makes the Torah so special, what makes it the Torah, is the fact of its divinity, the fact that the Jewish people understood and believed that they had received it from God. That very fact, this Gemara would have us understand, invalidates it as a binding document. We did not, in any meaningful way, choose to accept the Torah, inasmuch as it was forced upon us from on high and is, therefore, not legally binding. Such a position invalidates and undermines the entire structure of Jewish law and ritual! If we are not obliged to keep the laws of the Torah, if we do not have a binding commitment to obey the word of God, we really do need to totally rethink our understanding of Judaism. 

However, the Talmud, not surprisingly, continues: "Rava said: Even so, they again reaccepted it in the days of Achashverosh [the King of Persia in the Purim story], as it is written in Megillat Esther,  קיימו וקבלו היהודים - 'the Jews upheld and accepted' - they upheld that which they had already accepted [i.e. - they reaffirmed, in a binding manner, their earlier, not-valid-because-of-God's-oh-so-compelling-presence, acceptance of the Torah]." Rava is quoting from a verse at the end of the Book of Esther - "The Jews upheld and accepted, on themselves and their descendants, and on all those who accompany them, to not transgress, to make these two days [of Purim] as they are written, in their appointed time, every single year." In its simple reading, the words "upheld and accepted" (kiymu v'kiblu) are referring to the fact that they established and celebrated the holiday of Purim, not that they reaccepted the Torah. Rava's understanding, that this phrase is referring to a reaffirmation of the covenant made so ineffectually at Sinai, is apparently based on the unnecessary double language - 'upheld and accepted', and the fact that it is apparently out of order; it should say 'accepted and upheld' (קבלו וקיימו) - as first you accept something, then you uphold it. This echoes the famous statement made by the Jews at Mt. Sinai -נעשה ונשמע - 'we will do and we will hear', which is also backwards. This phrase, therefore, refers us to the events at Mt. Sinai, and serves, according to Rava, as a corrective to what went wrong there; the overwhelming presence of God.

Crucially, the problem at the original giving of the Torah - the presence of God - is missing in the days of Achashverosh. The entire Scroll of Esther contains not one single reference to His name. The 'miracle' that saved the Jews form Haman's intention to slaughter them was simply Esther and Mordechai's success in getting the king to give them permission to defend themselves against their attackers, which they did brilliantly. God's overbearing presence - precisely that which what makes the covenant at Mt. Sinai non-binding - is conspicuously absent in the story, which is resolved successfully without any overt reference to Him.

But if God is absent in the Purim story, what is present? What, exactly, were the Jews who live 2500 years ago in Persia upholding and accepting, and why? Rashi and Tosafot explain that the Jews of Persia, of their own free will, out of love for the miracle that was done for them, re-accepted the Torah. But we just explained that the 'miracle' was simply some clever manipulation at Achashverosh's court and the subsequent winning of a battle - the most secular, natural, un-miraculous 'miracles' imaginable. In what way did this political-military victory inspire and trigger that which was missing at Mt. Sinai, a valid acceptance of the Torah?

If we accept the opening assumption of this Gemara, that the presence of God gets in the way of one's commitment to a religious life, by robbing it of the essential component of free will, then we are left with what seems to be a remarkably radical understanding of religious commitment. In the Purim story, what was there for the Jewish people to commit to, to freely bind themselves to, was the success of their own efforts, the victorious expression of their peoplehood. The Torah they recommitted to was inextricably bound up with the values of Purim - a sense of shared fate and destiny with one's fellow Jews, a sense that that destiny is somehow special, has transcendent meaning and value, is overseen in some hidden and mysterious way by God, but is essentially in our hands. As Mordachai, at the crucial moment in the story, says to Esther: "Don't think that you can escape to the house of the king from [the fate] of all the Jews. If you remain silent at this time, success and salvation shall come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father's house shall be lost. Who knows, perhaps it was for a time such as this that you achieved royal status." It is this set of values, which place human experience, human action and personal responsibility at the center of our concerns, and leave room for only the barest hint of divine providence, which is the framework for the acceptance of the Torah which is valid, which binds and obligates us.

The event of Mt. Sinai, suffused with the unbearable presence of a transcendent God made painfully imminent, is not a valid arena for religious commitment, for it is not made by free men and women, and it is not made in the real world. On Purim, we celebrate our freely-made decision to be Jews and live as Jews, and remember that it is up to us to act, in a world seemingly devoid of God, in order to maintain ourselves as individuals and as a community. The celebrations of the day - sending gifts to friends, feasting together, and supporting the poor, all express this sense of commitment to community. This commitment to our people and their destiny is the soil out of which grows our commitment to an unseen God and His Torah. Of our own free will, from a place of human experience and human activity, from a commitment to the people of Israel, we can begin to choose to relate to the God of Israel, and the Torah of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Purim Summary


Purim celebrates the victory of the Jewish people, in Persia in the fourth century BCE, over those who plotted to destroy them. Celebrated with the reading of Megillat Esther, feasting, drinking, carnival-like costumes, and gifts to friends and the needy, Purim takes place on the 14th day of Adar, and the 15th in cities that were walled in Biblical times, such as Jerusalem.

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