Our lives are filled with many questions and decisions. Each of us is ultimately faced with two core questions that are simultaneously as old as human history, and as new and as poignant as this immediate moment.
The first question is: What should we take into our own lives from the past? For most modern Jews, this is a question as to the potential meaning the traditions of the past have in our lives today.
What of our parents’ or ancestors’ traditions and values – if any – should we embrace and make our own? And which are so irrelevant, absurd or even indefensible that we must leave them in the past? Throughout history, one might argue that the Jewish people has both preserved and renewed itself constantly because of the many ways we’ve answered this first question about the meaning and relevance of the past.
But this first question is not only a question about our own sense of the truth and value of the traditions of the past (whether about keeping kosher or being connected to the Land of Israel). It is also a question of whether or not we think such rituals or customs can be made relevant in our own lives today.
Different answers are what has both preserved and transformed Jewish tradition throughout the ages. At key moments, communities and individuals made choices that changed the fate of an entire culture.
Abraham left Haran, the enslaved Israelites went forth out of Egypt, Moses descended from Mount Sinai a second time with the document that would launch a new era of human history, and future generations returned to the ancestral homeland of Israel and were exiled out of it again.
Each of these turning points demanded a new answer to the question: What do we take from the past into the present? But the second question every human being faces is equally important: What do we want to bequeath to the future? Once we’ve determined what to make of the past ancestral values, which values do we most want to pass forward, and how can we ensure they are secure for future generations? If there’s one thing Jews are more obsessed with than the past, it’s the future. The daily prayers and weekly Shabbat blessings hold us suspended between the merit of our ancestors and commitment to the covenant, and our wild and absurd dreams (of peace or utopian universal redemption) about the future.
Somehow, swinging between the past and the future, we create our lives through the choices we make in this moment.
Ever since Abraham, the first Jew, broke with the past when he set out into the unknown to become the father of a new nation (Genesis 12), we have been obsessed with maintaining what the Sages came to call an “unbroken chain of tradition.”
Our sacred texts teach this unlikely narrative in the hope that preserving the links between generations will protect us against breaking, again, so severely with the past.
It is a powerful turning point in our lives when we turn from wrestling with questions about what meaning we make of the past toward the questions of what values we want to ensure for the future. Many find fulfillment in seeing a direct line from the revelation at Sinai (that we are about to celebrate at Shavuot) to the engagement of future generations in the interpretation and debate of those same sacred words. We like to see ourselves as part of an unbroken chain of connection and tradition.
But every generation has to choose to stand at the foot of the mountain and respond affirmatively to the offer of Torah and the gift of revelation. Even the generation that stood at Sinai had to choose Torah.
And according to some talmudic texts, it isn’t so clear that the choice – even then – was obvious. A famous narrative in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that perhaps the Israelites didn’t immediately agree to accept the Torah when it was offered to them, but rather that God had to coerce them into accepting it.
Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa reinterprets the biblical phrase of the Israelites gathering batahtit hahar (Exodus 19:17) not to mean “at the foothills of the mountain,” but – playing on the linguistic possibilities – to mean “underneath the mountain.”
He suggests this means that God actually picked up Mount Sinai, turned it upside-down and held the mountain – like a vault – over their heads and said: “If you accept my Torah, all will be well. But if not, here will be your graves” (Tractate Shabbat 88b).
Several troubling questions emerge immediately: Was the Torah given and received through coercion? If so, does this make the covenantal contract between God and the People of Israel invalid? Is the biblical recording of our unanimous agreement to affirm and uphold it not the whole story? Most importantly, we must note that such a troubling text is not the invention of a modern person troubled by notions of authority and autonomy in the context of receiving divine law, but is the interpretive act of the Sages preserved and repeated throughout the generations.
Within a few sentences we are relieved to discover that in fact, the Torah is binding – lest we thought otherwise for even a moment! – because many generations later, the Jews of Persia in the Book of Esther affirmed the covenant, saying they “upheld and accepted” the Torah and its covenant that was originally offered hundreds of years before (Esther 9:27). They declared, without any coercion, that they wanted to receive and uphold Torah. They said yes to revelation.
It took some generations after the fear and trembling of Sinai for the Jews to answer both questions affirmatively.
According to this interpretation, we did eventually say yes to the question about upholding that which we received from the past. They were confirming the value and relevance of such a covenant in their own time.
After a few generations of familiarity with the Torah that was totally unfamiliar to the Sinai generation, and having just survived possible annihilation, it was clear to the Jews of the Book of Esther that the response to the offer of the gift of a doctrine of faith and social ethics is yes. Perhaps they felt responsibility and gratitude for survival and the possibilities of the future, in ways the former slaves at Sinai could not.
In a very different context, the then-not-yet-well-known Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) referred to this talmudic text as a call to see ourselves in a similar situation, wherein the mountain is once again being held over our heads. In March 1938, at a conference of Quaker leaders in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, Heschel delivered a talk which he later expanded and published in 1943 in the US, titled “The Meaning of This Hour.”
At a time when the atrocities of the Nazis and the loss of millions of Jews was becoming clearer, Heschel wrote: “We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities. The martyrdom of millions demands that we consecrate ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s dream of salvation. Israel did not accept the Torah of their own free will. When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: ‘Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.’ “The mountain of history is over our heads again,” asserted Heschel. “Shall we renew the covenant with God?” In addition to being an affirmation of choosing life, receiving Torah is reaffirming God’s covenant anew. Whether we received the gift of Torah fully at Sinai or only later in Persia, every generation must choose to recommit itself to a vision of a world redeemed, a world in which suffering is not in vain, and neither is survival.
Our very existence must have the purpose of redeeming and saving others.
The past can only offer us its wisdom, but the future is determined by the justice and salvation we help create. The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions, and a President’s Scholar.