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Compulsory Love: Free Will and our Acceptance of the Torah

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Translated by David Silverberg


"And they stood at the foot of the mountain" - Said R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa: This teaches us that the Holy One held the mountain over them like an cask and said, "If you accept the Torah, then fine; but if not, I will bury you here." Said R. Acha bar Yaakov: This serves notice that the Torah was accepted under duress [and thus, ostensibly, is not legally binding]. (Shabbat 88a)

This well-known aggada is generally understood to mean that since only coercive threats convinced Am Yisrael to receive the Torah, it is possible to evade its obligations, as in the case of any commitment undertaken unwillingly.

The Maharal understood to the contrary. In his view, the very inviolability of Torah stems from its inescapability:

The reason He "held the mountain over them like a cask" is so that Yisrael could not say that the Torah may be annulled, for had its acceptance depended on their agreement, it follows that rejection could be an option. Had they not been forced, it would have been possible to accept or not to accept. So He threatened them, saying in effect that they have no choice but to accept. And anything that is absolutely necessary cannot be revoked ... I found in the midrash: Since the Holy One held the mountain over them like a cask when He came to give them the Torah, they were coerced ("anusim") to receive the Covenant. Now the Torah says with regard to a case of rape ("ones"), "She shall be his wife, he may never send her away" (Devarim 22:29). Thus, the Holy One "coerced" them, and thereby they remain His forever and cannot be sent away. (Gur Aryeh, Shemot 17:19)

The Maharal claims that the coercion itself guarantees that Yisrael will never evade its Torah-commitment. But how? In the legalistic context of the passage, isn't lack of will a cogent argument for annulment of the agreement?

Furthermore, if coercion doesn't legally weaken the commitment, how are we to understand R. Acha bar Yaakov's statement? The Maharal himself is ambiguous on this point:

As for R. Acha's saying that "Notice was served on the Torah," he means that since the receipt of the Torah was under compulsion, it wasn't a perfect receiving, for Torah ought to be received willingly.


Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers addressed the problem posed by this gemara: did God actually threaten to kill the Jews? We will here analyze the position of the Ketzot, who discusses the matter in the introduction to his work Shev Shemateta. He bases himself on our citation from the Maharal, but adds his own insight to it. He suggests that the Jews revolted against their being "coerced" into receiving the Torah, and that the traces of that revolt may be found in the book of Bamidbar (chap. 11), in the affair of the "complainers."

The Torah there says that our ancestors in the desert became "sick of the inferior bread," that is, the manna which fell to them from Heaven. The manna symbolized and was the concrete expression of the "cask" which was held over their heads:

Because they ate the manna which originated in Heaven, from whence came the Torah ... their whole desire and yearning was for Torah alone, and their soul was dried empty of any physical want. But they "yearned for [corporeal] desire" ("hitavu ta'ava"), in order that the receipt of Torah on their part would be from their own choice and will, as they had indeed said at the time - "We will do and we will listen." For no one wants to be made to love. That is why they complained about the manna - it compelled them to love Torah.

In the view of the Shev Shemateta, the "coercion" here consists of an existential bond of love between Benei Yisrael and the Torah. If so, our first question - how does "coercion" cement the commitment - is answered. Compelling love, it seems, is a reliable guarantee of eternal devotion. But now, our second question is sharpened: what, then, is the problem, and why is "notice served" on the agreement to receive the Torah?

The answer of the Shev Shemateta to this question goes beyond the simple meaning of Scripture. "No one wants to be made to love." The Jews did not dream of fish and vegetables, as the literal verses seem to imply, but of being tied and committed to Torah in a different way. As our author continues:

And when it says, "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing," they meant: without compulsion, whatever we chose and whatever we wanted ... "But now our souls are dry" ... we want the choice TO BE IN OUR OWN HANDS. Once we have the choice, we will be perfectly willing to eat manna, but without sacrificing our other desires and inclinations. That way, our receiving of Torah will be by our will and choice, as we said from the start: "We will do and we will listen."

For people who subsist on manna, the bond to spirituality is natural and self-evident. How sweet and pleasant would such a life be - what a paradise! The source of other-worldly bliss - the Torah - would be placed before us, and we could indulge in it without hindrance, free of any concern or distraction. We would savor its luminescent wisdom, we would give it our whole heart and mind. There is but one problem in paradise - no one wants to be made to love.


Coercion may be defined as the negation of man's free choice. But within this general category we discern two types. There is one mode of coercion wherein a man's soul is sundered, as it were, between his "outwardness," which acts in the context of the external situation, and his inner reality, which yearns - perhaps helplessly - for another world. The second form of coercion, which is essentially opposed to the first, is the one discussed by the Shev Shemateta. All that is exalted in man, his innermost idealistic strivings, are actualized without hindrance. No adversary bedevils him, no "evil urge" tempts him or plagues him with doubt. Love rises and swells, the spirit soars. But it is still coercion, because the path has not been chosen by him. The point of free choice is the intellectual cognition, followed by the firm decision, that "this is my way." Its greatness lies in man's ability to use his conscious understanding in order to identify and respond to the profoundest needs of his soul. The method of conscious understanding involves analysis, comparison, and weighing of alternatives. In a context where there is no variety of alternatives, where choice is obviated because there is only one road to travel, we as a rule introduce the category "self-evident." We then say that it is "self-evident" that this is the way, for there is no other. But to say that something is "self-evident" is to say, as far as rational understanding is concerned, that it is inexplicable.

Free choice is more than the mere capacity to choose. It endows human action with a unique force. This force is exemplified in what we are told in Sefer Bereshit about Adam Ha-Rishon, who failed to find a mate among all the beasts of the field, until finally he was given a wife, and he understood: "This time, she is bone of my bone!" The gestation of Adam's exulting cry was the long process which preceded it. Had he not closely examined all the animals before finding his true mate, he could not have said the words "this time." And clearly, it is only those two words, which convey his waiting, anxiety, frustration and anticipation, that give "bone of my bone" such power and finality. Take as another instance the case of Yitro, the priest of Midian, who, according to our tradition, had indulged in every existing form of idolatry before arriving at his true faith. Only an arduous odyssey of searching and weighing spiritual alternatives could have made possible his great declaration: "NOW I KNOW that Hashem is greater than all other gods!"

It is the existential search of the doubt-ridden, dissatisfied human mind, in the process of conscious, rational choice, which turns self-evidentruth into spiritual triumph. This is the gift of free will to humanity.


This is the reason for the great esteem in which proselytes were held by the Rambam. He wrote the following in his famous epistle to R. Ovadia the Proselyte:

... Regarding proselytes ("gerim"), our obligation is a great, heart-bound love - "And thou shalt love the 'ger'" - just as He obligated us to love His name ... For a man who left his father and homeland and cleaves to this nation, recognizing that their religion is the true and just one, and understands the ways of Israel and knows that all the religions are stolen from theirs ... and pursues God, his heart moving him to draw near to the light of life and ascend in the wake of the prophets - could anyone on this level be called a fool? Heaven forbid, the Lord does not consider you a fool but a wise, understanding and intelligent man ... a disciple of our father Abraham who deserted his fathers and his homeland to follow God.

For that matter, this viewpoint is the basis for the Rambam's rapturous portrait of Avraham Avinu himself:

From the moment this titan was weaned, his mind began to search ... and he began to think day and night ... until he arrived at the way of truth and understood the route of justice, by virtue of his correct understanding. (Hilkhot Avoda Zara, ch. 1)

In like manner, the children of Israel ought to have been "proselytes." They waited expectantly through years of forced servitude in Egypt for the great moment of "coming beneath the wings of the Shekhina." When they sensed that the moment was at hand, they called out, "We will do and we will listen!" As far as they were concerned, it was the cry of discovery, of the profound understanding that the Torah is "bone of our bone," which they hoped would be the eternal defining element of their bond to Torah. But, according to our Midrash, God had other ideas. Unexpectedly, the mountain was "held over them like a cask." The Torah was received through "coercion," which changed the essential nature of the covenant.

We will quote here again from the Maharal, who asked the question: since the Jews who left Egypt were basically proselytes, why weren't they allowed to marry their relatives, like any other convert (who is halakhically judged a "new-born" with no family ties)? The Maharal answers that even though Har Sinai is considered as a "conversion" ceremony, yet,

They were forced to receive the Torah... Truly, one who converts on his own, though he didn't have to, is a totally new entity. But the Jews who left Egypt were obligated and coerced into it, and therefore they were not as "new-borns." (Gur Aryeh, Bereshit 46)

It is as if God said to the Jews, while holding the mountain over them: "I am truly sorry, My children. But you must see - the whole world has been waiting for this day. Did you really think that I would make this offer subject to your consideration and approval? Could I really let you say 'No?' The path of free choice is indeed great, provided that the proper choice is made. In this case, the risk would have been intolerable. I simply had to consider the possibility that you would be smitten with momentary blindness; that one capricious, irresponsible response would be sufficient to derail history from its purpose. No, My children. You will receive Torah without intellectual analysis, without assessment of alternatives. You will receive Torah because it is 'self-evident.' It will be your natural, inescapable instinct; its desire will be embedded in your minds, it will be your lifeblood."

Now, the Jews could have answered: "But what about Avraham Avinu? You didn't threaten him with mountains! Doesn't that prove that a heart's understanding can be relied upon, even when the spiritual future of mankind is at stake?" But the retort to this argument is at hand. For the Rambam himself admits that, historically speaking, the way of Avraham could very well have led to nowhere, if not for Divine intervention:

Until time passed upon the Jews in Egypt and they began to learn from their ways and worship idols like them ... and the root which was planted by Avraham was nearly overturned, the children of Yaakov regressing to the world's illusions and aimlessness. But God in His love for us, and in order to keep His oath to Avraham Avinu, sent Moshe Rabbenu, the master of prophets ....

The risks entailed in reliance on human wisdom and steadfastness are historically demonstrable. God's intervention, His choice, His revelation and guidance - these are the only guaranteed solution.


The decision was made by God. Historical necessity dictated that the way of free choice had to be overridden. But as sometimes happens, our Sages expressed their discontent at the price that had to be paid. "Notice was served on the Torah" - the essential qualitative deficiency remained and continued to tarnish the Jews' connection to Torah, until the situation was remedied in the days of Achashverosh. Kabbalat Torah which is founded on natural instinct, on the "self-evident," on the experientially pleasing encounter with Torah - is seriously deficient, if it does not rest as well on intellectual assessment and clear understanding of the significance of Torah.

It seems that this is especially true in our time, when there is no aspect of life which is not held up to rational scrutiny. God has done us a service by implanting the Torah-proclivity within us; now it is up to us to complement the connection through understanding and cognition. This is something which requires conscious effort and study. "We will do and we will listen" remains a clarion-call to strive for Kabbalat Torah with a clear and discerning mind, using the unique power of free choice.



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