Shabbat 88

"If not, this will be your grave."

On Shavuot, Jews study into the night and eat cheesecake to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But for many Jews, the idea that we were “chosen” to receive the Torah, singled out by God from all the other nations, provokes discomfort. Just because we have a special connection to a certain set of texts and practices, are we any better or more special in God’s eyes than members of other cultures or adherents of other faiths? Today’s daf offers a somewhat subversive account of our “chosenness” at Sinai that may provide a more palatable, albeit theologically radical read.

The Torah tell us that as the people were preparing to receive the revelation at Sinai: Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood below the mountain. (Exodus 19:17)

According to Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa, when the verse says “stood below the mountain,” it doesn’t mean at the foot of the mountain, but literally underneath Mount Sinai. These words, he says, teach us that God picked up the mountain and overturned it above the people like a giant tub, and said to them: “If you will accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your grave.”

In other words, the Israelites’ selection to receive the Torah was not so much a privilege as it was an ultimatum. Receiving the Torah, according to this midrash, was purely a matter of self-preservation.

As Rav Aha bar Yaakov (according to Rashi’s interpretation) points out, this seems like strong evidence that the covenant with God wouldn’t hold up in court. If a heavenly judge were to ask why someone did not follow the commandments, that person would simply explain that the covenant with God had been enforced by coercion, and therefore was never a truly valid and binding contract.

Yet Rava explains that hundreds of years later, in the days of Ahashverosh and Queen Esther, the Jews eventually did willingly accept the Torah, as it says in the Purim megillahThe Jews upheld and took upon themselves… (Esther 9:27) The repetition in this verse — “upheld” and “took upon themselves” — explains Rava, really means the Jews decided to uphold what they had already taken upon themselves by coercion, and that they decided they did want the Torah after all.

According to the version of events in this daf, then, God’s selection of Israel to receive the Torah is not so theologically important — in fact, it could even be said to raise a major problem with the entire notion of the Torah’s binding nature. Rather, as Rava reminds us, it is ultimately our own choice to take hold of the Torah and make it our own that counts.

Read all of Shabbat 88 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 2, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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