Where were you just before Shavuot 3,322 years ago? You probably don’t remember
– truthfully, neither do I. But according to Jewish tradition we were standing
together at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai peninsula known as either Sinai
or Horeb – a mountain whose location is unknown today (Midrash Hagadol to
Deut. 29:9, Shabbat 146a). Tradition says that at that time, not only
were the newly released slaves from Egypt there but they were accompanied by the
souls of all Israelites that would be born in the future. You might even have
been standing under that mountain since the Sages understood the phrase “They
stood b’tahtit hahar” (Exodus 19:17) not as “at the foot of the mountain” but as
literally “underneath the mountain.” According to one midrash, God held the
mountain over their heads and threatened: “Either accept the Torah or this shall
be your burial place!” (Shabbat 88a). According to an even older midrash, the
mountain was held over them as a magnificent huppa for the wedding between
Israel and God – and the Torah was the ketuba (Mechilta Bahodesh 3). That is the
interpretation I prefer.
So there we were, waiting – but waiting for
what? Actually, we’d been waiting a few days, preparing ourselves. We were asked
if we would obey God faithfully and keep His covenant.
If so, we would
become His “treasured possession… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”
(Exodus 19:5-6). What would you answer to that? According to the Torah there was
no hesitation and no dissent, no debate and no discussion on what was to be the
most important decision in all our lives. Rather, all of of us replied, “All the
Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8).
The sages of Israel, who had
great imaginations and never left well enough alone, indicated that it wasn’t
quite that simple.
In the first place, they said, God went around to
various nations almost like a peddler, offering them each the Torah. He asked
the children of Esau and they replied, “What is written in it?” He answered,
“You shall not murder.” They refused, saying that this was their very way of
life. He asked the Ishmaelites.
They too asked what was written. He said,
“You shall not steal.”
They replied that that was their very way of life
(Sifre Deuteronomy 343.) And as for Israel, they were like someone who would
want to know what a proposed ruler had done for them to warrant becoming king.
Therefore before God approached them with the proposition He first brought them
out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent them manna, then quails for meat,
and brought about the defeat of Amalek, so that when He came to Israel, He could
recount those events and then ask if they would accept Him to which they
replied, “Yes, O yes!” (Mechilta Bahodesh 5).
What would have happened if
they had said no? We’ve seen that one midrash said they would have been
annihilated – but we don’t know if that is so. Perhaps they would simply have
gone on wandering. Maybe they would have gotten to the land, maybe not, but one
thing is certain: we would not have the Torah and the commandments. We would not
be what we are today. Perhaps we would have disappeared as so many other ancient
But what’s the point of second-guessing history? We all
voted yes and the rest, as they say, is history. The question that Shavuot
presents to us and that each of us must answer in our lives is the same one that
was presented at Sinai. Do we want to obey God and follow God’s ways or not? Do
we want to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation or not? If the answer is
yes then we have to look within the Torah and within the tradition of our people
to find the way to do that so that our lives will be meaningful and will help
this world to become a better place for all.
The writer, former president
of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National
Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).