Mount Sinai: Willing Acceptance or Divine Compulsion?

June 12, 2024

The experience of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai is one of the most profound and defining moments in Jewish history. Yet, the sages make a very strange comment about this monumental event. The verse in Exodus 19:17 states:

Based on this verse, the sages draw a rather peculiar conclusion. The Hebrew words for “at the foot of the mountain” literally translate to “at the bottom (or underside) of the mountain.” From this, the sages teach that God held the mountain over their heads and declared: “If you accept the Torah, good. If not, there will be your burial place.” It sounds like God forced the Jewish people into a covenant with Him.

This imagery of coercion seems at odds with the earlier verse (Exodus 19:8) in which the Israelites unanimously proclaimed, “All that Hashem has spoken we will do!” Hadn’t they already agreed to accept the Torah willingly? What is meant by this forced acceptance?

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926) offers a nuanced understanding of this interpretation. He suggests that the coercion was not literal but figurative. After witnessing the miracles of the Exodus, the truth of God’s existence was so clear and undeniable to the Israelites that rejecting His Torah was not a viable option. The clarity of divine truth was so overwhelming that it felt as though they were compelled to accept it.

The Maharal of Prague provides a slightly different perspective. He argues that the Torah is essential for the world’s continued existence. Hence, its acceptance had to be more than a voluntary act; it had to be a divine mandate. This necessity underscores a critical aspect of our relationship with God: it is not optional. While they willingly entered the covenant “All that Hashem has spoken we will do!”, this does not negate the inherent obligation that comes with the relationship. Our relationship with the Almighty is not a buffet from which we can pick and choose what suits us best. It is an all-encompassing commitment that we are bound to uphold.

This dual nature of acceptance—both willing and forced—reflects the complexity of our relationship with God and the Bible. On one hand, our bond with God is rooted in love and a genuine desire to follow His commandments. On the other hand, it is also an unbreakable covenant that imposes obligations upon us, regardless of our personal inclinations at any given moment.

The sages’ depiction of God holding the mountain over the Israelites serves as a powerful reminder that our commitment to Him is non-negotiable. We cannot end our relationship with God, nor can we redefine it based on what feels convenient. It is a relationship that encompasses both love and a sense of duty, devotion, and a fundamental, inescapable obligation.

Just as the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, feeling both the awe of divine revelation and the weight of an eternal commitment, we too must embrace our relationship with God and His Bible in its entirety. We cannot pick and choose, nor can we walk away. This duality forms the foundation of a relationship that is both deeply cherished and eternally binding and guides our path with a blend of love and divine mandate.

The Hebrew Bible is a very big book – actually, 24 books, to be exact. Studying it can feel very overwhelming. Where do you start?


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Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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