Our Inner Adversaries
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Yitro, describes the greatest event in world history, the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Creator of the Universe made an “appearance” before His Chosen Nation and presented them with the Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Utterances). These constitute the fundamental principles essential to mankind’s moral and spiritual perfection.
The reason the Jews accepted the Torah was not because G-d had instructed Moshe to transmit it to them. That would not have been sufficiently compelling to render the Jews responsible to keep the commandments.
Rather, Hashem wanted them to trust not Moshe’s word, but their own eyes and ears. He wanted the entire people to see for themselves that G-d exists and communicates His will to mankind.
This should cause us to rethink our concept of faith. I fear that many religious Jews have been heavily influenced by the Gentile view, which exalts the notion of blind acceptance. They regard it as a virtue to believe in their religious doctrines, even if they do not make sense and are unsubstantiated by any proof.
Why is uninformed believing regarded as an ideal? Hashem has endowed us with a sophisticated intellect capable of abstract thought and logical conclusions.
All of human progress in science, technology, and medicine has been made by applying reason when studying the forces of nature. Someone who places blind faith in an untested medical procedure to cure a serious illness is regarded as a fool.
Yet someone who accepts all the obligations and prohibitions of an unverified religion is respected as a man of faith.
The public Revelation at Sinai attests that Hashem did not want us to “check our brains at the door” and, like zombies, blindly observe our religion. He wanted us to contemplate the matter carefully and to reach an intelligent conviction about the veracity of Torah.
In this regard, nothing could be clearer than Moshe’s final exhortation to the Jews to keep the Torah. He said, “You were shown to know that Hashem is G-d—there is no other than Him.” Again, “And you shall know this day and contemplate in your mind that Hashem is G-d in heaven above and on earth below; there is none other.”
Moshe never appealed to the Jews to just have faith and accept the mitzvot with no questions asked. That would be tantamount to asking people to behave like fools, an anathema to Judaism.
There is, however, a strange Rabbinic Midrash that must be included in this discussion. The Talmud expounds on the words, ”They stood at the bottom of the mountain”; Rav Avdimi said, “This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed is He, held the mountain over them and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, fine. But if not, this will be your burial place.”
The plain sense of this statement is that the Jews did not voluntarily accept the Torah, but were compelled, under threat of annihilation, to do so. But that contradicts the Torah narrative, which clearly reports the Jews as saying, under absolutely no compunction, that whatever Hashem says they will do.
This is a perfect example of the idea that a Midrash should not always be taken literally. There is no question that the Jews entered into the Covenant willingly, because they had experienced all of G-d’s wonders and majesty.
However, the Torah is fully aware of the deeper and hidden recesses of the human psyche. It is true that, on the conscious level, the Jews had ample rational grounds for opting to follow the Torah.
But humans are very complex beings. We do not always act reasonably or according to our best interests. We must contend with numerous emotional resistances that distort our vision and deter us from making the demanding efforts and sacrifices necessary for true spiritual growth.
Sometimes a person needs to be impelled to do the right and beneficial thing, because his desire for the good is insufficient to nullify the evil inclination.
We must be cognizant of the emotional adversaries that reside within us. They include egotism, rebelliousness, stubbornness, and, perhaps most insidious, laziness. The desire to pamper ourselves and avoid any type of deprivation is our most significant obstacle on the road to perfection.
The Jews have made monumental contributions to the welfare and progress of mankind. But we have not operated for a single day without awareness that our existence hung in the balance as the mountain hovered over us on that day at Sinai.
A certain amount of existential anxiety can be a useful and positive thing. Let us remember the words of Antigonus of Socho, who framed the doctrine to serve G-d out of love this way: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
May we strive to live in accordance with this precious teaching.
P.S. Have you completed the essays in Eternally Yours- Genesis and are feeling a bit sad that you don’t have thought provoking material to look forward to reading on Shabbat? No worries because Eternally Yours- Exodus is available. The articles offer a new and original perspective on the weekly Parsha which will get you thinking and enhance your appreciation of Torah and enjoyment of Shabbat. Titles include “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” “Reclaiming One’s Dignity” “Love Is Not All You Need” “Saw You At Sinai” “The True Test Of Piety” “Betrayal” and many more. The book on Exodus can be obtained at http://bit.ly/EY-Exodus and the book on Genesis is available at http://bit.ly/EY-Genesis