The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai: A Covenant of Fear or of Love?
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This Thursday night, Friday, and Saturday we are going to celebrate the Festival of Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks.” It is celebrated seven weeks after the second evening of Passover.
Shavuot combines two major aspects, the agricultural and the historical. The first aspect is related to the grain harvest, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. It was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel, when Israelites were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem, bringing offerings of the first fruits of their harvest.
The historical aspect is the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. It was one of the milestones of our history, where the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God, receiving the rules, values, and traditions of the Torah.
In this message I would like to focus on one of the verses which describes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is written in the Book of Sh’mot: “Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.” (Sh´mot 19:17).
In this verse, the people are described as standing ‘b’tahtit ha’har’ – usually translated as either “below” or “at the foot of” the mountain. Moses climbed Mount Sinai in order to receive the tablets and the people waited at the foot of the mountain. However, the word ‘b’tahtit’ can literally be taken to mean “underneath” the mountain. In that case, what does “underneath” mean? Were the people of Israel “underneath” the mountain? How is it possible?
I will share with you two different answers to these questions:
1) Talmud Bavli Masechet Shabbat 88a
“The Torah says, “Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Sh’mot 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”
According to this passage from the Talmud, the words ‘b’tahtit ha-har’ mean that the people stood under the mountain and that it was a sign of a threat: if the people had refused to accept the Torah, the mountain would have been dropped on them, and it would have become their grave!
This is a very hard conception. It means that the people received the Torah by coercion, fear, and threat.
2) Midrash Mekhilta Ba-Hodesh 3
‘The Lord came from Sinai’ (D’varim 33:2) like a bridegroom who goes forth to meet the bride.” “And they took their places below the mountain (Exodus 19:17). This teaches that the mountain was pulled up from its place and they came and stood under it, as it said, “You came forward and stood under the mountain” (D’varim 4:11).
This Midrash presumes also the literal meaning of the words ‘b’tahtit ha-har’. However, this text understands the people as standing under Mount Sinai and the mountain thus becomes a great wedding canopy. God and the people of Israel stood under that mountain with love and happiness as a couple stands under the Huppah for their wedding.
We can see here two different perspectives about the covenant between the people of Israel and God based on the meaning of the words ‘b’tahtit ha-har’. Were the people of Israel coerced into it, threatened with extinction if they did not agree? Or were they led into it as a result of a loving relationship?
There are many ways to approach a religious/spiritual and ethical life. There are groups that focus on fear, coercion, and threat in order to keep the continuity of their tradition. There are groups that focuses on the free choice, love, education, and the willingness to become better people. Anyone is free to choose one’s path to live his/her spiritual/religious life. Personally, I would prefer to approach God and the observance of the Jewish tradition with love, equality, freedom, and respect instead of fear, coercion, and threat.
One of the names of the Festival of Shavuot is “Z’man Matan Torateinu,” “the season of the giving of our Torah.” It is a time of the year when we also should open our hearts and minds to receive the Torah. It is a time to think how we would like to make the covenant with God, buried alive under a mountain or under a loving Huppah?
Chag Sameach! Shabbat Shalom!