Torah Weekly

For the week ending 22 January 2011 / 16 Shevat 5771

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Hearing of the miracles G-d performed for Bnei Yisrael , Moshe's father-in-law Yitro arrives with Moshe's wife and sons, reuniting the family in the wilderness. Yitro is so impressed by Moshe's detailing of the Exodus from Egypt that he converts to Judaism. Seeing that the only judicial authority for the entire Jewish nation is Moshe himself, Yitro suggests that subsidiary judges be appointed to adjudicate smaller matters, leaving Moshe free to attend to larger issues. Moshe accepts his advice. Bnei Yisrael arrive at Mt. Sinai where G-d offers them the Torah. After they accept, G-d charges Moshe to instruct the people not to approach the mountain and to prepare for three days. On the third day, amidst thunder and lightning, G-d's voice emanates from the smoke-enshrouded mountain and He speaks to the Jewish People, giving them the Ten Commandments:

  1. Believe in G-d
  2. Don't worship other "gods"
  3. Don't use G-d's name in vain
  4. Observe Shabbat
  5. Honor your parents
  6. Don't murder
  7. Don't commit adultery
  8. Don't kidnap
  9. Don't testify falsely
  10. Don't covet.

After receiving the first two commandments, the Jewish People, overwhelmed by this experience of the Divine, request that Moshe relay G-d's word to them. G-d instructs Moshe to caution the Jewish People regarding their responsibility to be faithful to the One who spoke to them.


An Offer You Can’t Refuse

“Moshe brought the people forth from the camp toward G-d, and they stood under the mountain.” (19:17)

Some three thousand years ago, a little-known Middle Eastern people gathered around a small mountain in a trackless wilderness and underwent an experience which changed the history of the world.

For the first time since the beginning of the universe, the Creator spoke to an entire nation. The nation was called Israel. The mountain was called Sinai. At Sinai, G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah, the mystical blueprint of the Creation.

“...and they stood under the mountain.”

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) reveals the hidden meaning of this verse. At Sinai the Jewish People literally stood “under the mountain.” G-d held the mountain over them like a barrel and said, “If you accept the Torah, well and good. If not, this will be your burial place.”

This seems strange. Could it be that G-d coerced the Jewish People into accepting the Torah? Was the Torah the original “offer you can’t refuse?” This is both unpalatable and contradictory, for we know that it was Israel alone among the nations that was prepared to accept the Torah ‘sight unseen’. When the Creator offered the Jewish People the Torah they said “We will do and we will hear…” — meaning that we will accept the Torah before we know all of what it requires of us. If they were prepared to accept Torah voluntarily, why should coercion be necessary?

The Sixth Day

At the beginning of the book of Genesis it says Yom HaShishi — ‘the sixth day”. When speaking of the other days of the Creation, the Torah does not use the definite article ‘the.’ It merely says “second day, third day, etc.” Translators add the ‘the’ to make the English more idiomatic, but in Hebrew, only the sixth day is referred to as “the sixth day.” Why?

The stylistic anomaly of the addition of word ‘the’ teaches us that on that first sixth day, at the very moment of the completion of the physical world, G-d placed a condition into Creation. G-d made a condition that the universe would remain in a state of flux and impermanence until the Jewish People accepted the Torah at Sinai. And that was to be on another ‘sixth day.’ The sixth of Sivan — Shavuot — the day of the giving of the Torah.

It’s an amazing fact to ponder. The very fabric of existence hung in the balance for two and a half thousand years from the creation of Mankind until Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. In other words, the continuation of the entire Creation was predicated on Israel agreeing to accept the Torah. If they had refused, the entire world would have returned to primordial chaos.

Who’s Running The Show?

There’s a problem here. How could the whole future of the world depend on the choice of the Jewish People? How can existence itself — reality — be dependent on a created being? A creation cannot dictate the terms of existence; it can only be subject to them. Only one Existence can dictate existence: He who is Existence itself.

G-d held a mountain over the Jewish People not because they needed a little ‘encouragement’, but because Existence cannot depend on man’s volition. Man cannot govern what must be. Existence depends on G-d alone.

It was for this reason that the Torah had to be given through coercion. For even though Israel was prepared to accept it voluntarily, the Torah, the Will of the Creator, cannot be subject to the will of His creations. Just as G-d must be, so the Torah must be. Just as the Torah must be, so must it be given in a way which must be.

As an offer you can’t refuse.

  • Sources: Midrash Tanchuma 1; Talmud Shabbat 88a; Maharal of Prague

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