Bechukotai/Bamidbar/ Shavuot

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Torah is Not the Dessert!

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:17)

The simple meaning of this verse is that Moses brought the people to receive the Torah from God and that they stood at the foot of the mountain (Mount Sinai). Our sages, however, also interpret this as: “….and they stood underneath the maintain.” Based on this interpretation of the verse, our sages say that God held the mountain upon the people’s heads like a barrel. The sages stated: “If you receive the Torah all is well, but if you do not receive the Torah your burial place will be there.”

Our sages are indicating that God forced the Hebrews to accept the Torah. Tosafot (Tractate Shabbat 88a) asks why force was necessary given that the Jewish people famously stated: “We will do and we will listen” (which shows that they willingly accepted the Torah). Tosafot explains that the Sinai experience was so frightening (due to the thunder and fire at the Sinai revelation) that the people may have wanted to retract their willingness to accept the Torah. To prevent the nation from doing so, God forced the people to receive the Torah by threatening their lives.

The Maharal is not satisfied with the answer provided by Tosafot. The Maharal feels that if the answer were true (that if the Jewish people would have retracted their acceptance of the Torah out of fear) this would detract from the praise of the Jewish People for responding: “We will do and we will listen.” Maharal, therefore, provides a different answer. He explains that the Jewish People did not need to be coerced into receiving the Torah at all. God lifted the mountain upon the people to communicate an important lesson regarding the nature and importance of the Torah. God wanted to teach the nation to view the Torah as essential to their lives. A human being cannot survive without meals, but a human being can quite easily survive without dessert. God wants us to view the Torah and Torah study as we do a main meal and not as a nice, voluntary dessert. This is the intention of the blessing we recite every evening: “for they [Torah words] are our lives, and our length of days, and we will delve into them day and night.” Torah is not dessert! It is the main meal!