Were We Coerced?

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

An Aggadic teaching of the Talmud asserts that the Jews only accepted the Torah because they were coerced. This idea derives from the verse in Exodus describing the Revelation: “They stood at the base of the mountain.” Rav Avdimi said it teaches that G-d turned the mountain over them like a vat and told them, “If you accept the Torah, fine, but if not, this will be your burial place.” 

This explanation lends itself to many questions. First and foremost, why would G-d do this, and what is the benefit of an agreement secured through the fear of destruction? Another Midrash says that G-d offered the Torah to various nations, but each rejected it because of its prohibitions. Well, why didn’t He use the pressure of dire consequences to secure their agreement? 

The Jews, by contrast, are praised for willingly consenting to receive Hashem’s Torah. More problematically, the Aggadic teaching cited above contradicts the scriptural account of the “negotiations” that preceded the Revelation at Sinai, with Moshe acting as mediator. 

At Hashem’s instruction, Moshe conveyed G-d’s message, the essence of which was “and now, if you earnestly hearken to my voice and observe my covenant, you will be my most treasured nation, for the entire Earth is Mine.” Upon hearing this “offer,” the “entire people responded as one, and said, ‘Everything Hashem spoke, we will do.’ ” Moshe reported this response to G-d, who proceeded to reveal the Aseret HaDibrot (10 Commandments) on Mount Sinai. 

There is no hint of threat or coercion in G-d’s communication with the Jews. Hashem stressed the great benefit that would ensue from commitment to the covenant. The Jews would, by accepting the Torah, become a holy nation and G-d’s special treasure. 

This seems to be an offer one couldn’t refuse. And it doesn’t seem that there was any dissent among the people. They were all united in their enthusiastic positive response. That is why the Jews are favorably contrasted with the other nations that could only find fault with the Torah’s restrictions and rejected it. 

The Rabbi who formulated the Aggada about the mountain turned over them certainly knew the scriptural account. How could he maintain that the people complied only out of fear of death? 

There is no doubt in my mind that the Aggada is not meant to be taken literally, but to convey a subtle message. Humans are complex beings with many levels of thought and intention. We are also capable of ambivalence. Sometimes we are caught in a dilemma when our mind tells us one thing, but our emotions are completely out of sync with what we “know” to be true. 

The Jews’ positive attitude is described in the Torah and must be taken at the literal level. Hashem’s invitation to become His nation resonated with the people. It was very appealing, and they freely accepted it. On the conscious level, they agreed to receive the Torah willingly, happily. 

However, the Aggada is pointing out that their emotions were not entirely in line with their reason. There was psychological resistance to being “locked in” to the system of mitzvot. These contrary feelings were so strong that, to stifle them, an element of compulsion was required. The Jews had witnessed the awesome power of G-d. The fear and reverence in which they held Hashem was a necessary factor in making the decision to become His people. 

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Revelation, let us strive to gain greater understanding of Hashem’s Torah. May we reach the level where our emotions are in line with Divine Wisdom, so we can serve Him with love. 

Shabbat shalom and chag Shavuot sameach.