Shabbos 88 Choice and coercion in religious life 

On today’s daf, we are faced with 2 very different approaches to how the Torah was giving, so much so that it seems bizarre that the Gemora brings them one after another without noting any contradiction.

On the one hand , the Gemara learns from the passuk ויתישבו בתחתית ההר (” and they settled down at the bottom of ( or underneath) the mountain”- Shmot 19/17)  that Hashem  raised the mountain over us and threatened that if we do not except the Torah, we would be buried under it .

Although it is certainly within normative use to translate the word בתחתית as “at the foot of” , and not “under” , and this is probably the simple פשט , we can  explains that this derasha is based on the contrast between this word and another word used  in an earlier passuk  (Shmos 19/2) to describe their position, namely נגד (by or opposite) the mountain .

It seems clear from this that the Torah was forced on us, to the point that the Amora, Rav Acha bar Yaakov, makes the rather harsh point that this is in fact מודעא רבה לאורייתא , a strong argument for those who do not follow the Torah, seeing as it was given by force .

Straight after this , the Gemara brings statements of Chazal who understand the phrase “נעשה ונשמע” said by the people to imply that we accepted the Torah unconditionally and willingly , committing to keeping it even before we heard what was in it .

We could argue that this has nothing to do with accepting the Torah voluntarily, but rather the unconditional way in which we accepted that which was forced on us .

This could be  similar to if , chalila, a robber or powerful ruler (lehavdil) holds a gun to someone’s head –   one first immediately puts one’s hands up and says “Take anything you want, I will do whatever you say”, before actually hearing what he wants of one .

However, from the description of the 2 crowns that were given as a reward for this, and the story of the Sadducee who bothered Rava and mocked the way we accepted the Torah without first hearing whether we could handle it or not , it seems clear that the common explanation, namely that we indeed did indeed  accept the Torah voluntarily and unconditionally, is the correct one .

It is possible to suggest that these two forms of acceptance both took place, perhaps one after another .

Perhaps we first accepted the Torah voluntarily , but after hearing what was in it, or even before , started to have second thoughts? At which point we were told that it was now already binding on us and we have no choice but to accept it. 

This would be like making a voluntary vow , which once made is now compulsory, or entering a voluntary contract, which once signed , is now binding . See Tosfos on the daf who discussed this issue.

It could also be compared to a convert who voluntarily takes on Judaism, but who is now halachically Jewish, bound by the commandments, and unable to go back .

Alternatively, perhaps we were first coerced into accepting the Torah, and then later became excited about it and accepted it voluntarily. 

This would be similar to a child who is forced to go to school by his parent but then becomes excited about it and goes voluntarily.

Although interesting, the first explanation certainly fits the order of the pessukim better!

Nevertheless, we still need to explain why both these stages were necessary ?

If Hashem knew we would or did accept the Torah voluntarily, why did he force us to do so, particularly given the high risk that we would resent it and abandon it, as pointed out by Rav Acha bar Yaakov ? 

Rav Avraham Rivlin שליט”א , our mashgiach in Kerem b Yavneh, always makes an analogy to the different types of love we bless a bride and groom with ( it should be noted that on the next daf, the giving of the Torah is indeed compared to a wedding!)

Two of these are אהבה ( love) , and אחוה( brotherhood) 

Love is something personal, voluntary. 

A person chooses whom he wishes to love and be friends with. 

Brotherhood is something one has no say in at all- your brother is your brother whether you like it or not .

Love is something that can be temporary, unfortunately – even best friends often split up.

Brotherhood, in contrast is forever – one cannot “divorce one’s brother .”

We bless the bride and groom that their relationship  should experience the passion that comes with choosing who to love, but the stability and permanence of brotherhood .

Similarly, explains Rav Rivlin: It was essential for our love and passion for   Torah, that it be something we accept voluntarily .

Yet easy come, easy go, and something  we choose to love can often become less loved when the initial passion wears out.

As such, it was equally essential that our relationship with Torah also  contains “brotherhood”- an eternal and unbreakable bond, that weathers the highs and the lows and can never be broken.

This approach is fascinating, but could perhaps be questioned based on Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s point that, on the contrary, the fact that we accepted the Torah by coercion was actually an excuse to abandon it, not a reason to keep it forever !

Although this can perhaps be answered , there is another possibility I would like to suggest, which might also  bare some relation to Rav Rivlin’s approach.

There is a well-known, though counter intuitive Talmudic principle , that גדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה.” – one who performs a commandment he is obligated to perform is greater (gets greater reward) than one who performs a commandment voluntarily. ( see for example Avodah Zarah 3a, Kiddushim 31a )

This could be because someone who is forced to do something, has a natural temptation  to rebel and has to resist this urge to do so ( see Tosfos A.Z. 3a who takes this approach. ) 

This is in stark contrast to the passion with which  one fulfills a good deed which one has  chooses to do on his own .

As such, a child who becomes an adult celebrates the fact that until now, he only fulfilled commandments voluntarily, but know he will be fulfilling them because he is obligated to do so, and getting the increased merit for doing so.

Perhaps it is specifically for that reason, that once we had already accepted the Torah voluntarily, Hashem now forced the Torah on us.

Rav Acha’s point now supports this decision fully – precisely because we would now have an “excuse ” to rebel against what we had now been forced into , we have the potential to resist this urge and reach a far higher level and the accompanying merit. 

As such, this “coercion” now becomes one of the greatest kindness and opportunities that Hashem bestowed about us, perhaps even as a reward for our initial voluntary and unconditional acceptance! 

רצה ה.ק.ב.ה. לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות

(מכות פרק ג פסוק טז)

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