Tradition Today: Under the mountain

What happened at Sinai? The Torah gives two accounts and they do not always seem to be in agreement.

What happened at Sinai? The Torah gives two accounts and they do not always seem to be in agreement. For example, one emphasizes that no image was seen - "You heard the sound of words but perceived no shape - nothing but a voice" (Deuteronomy 4:12), while the other states that an image was seen - "The presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain" (Exodus 24:17). The account in Exodus is hazy in its description of the event, almost impossible to follow. For instance, what exactly did the people hear from God? Rabbinic interpretations differ - some say only the first word of the Decalogue - anochi - I. Some say only the first letter - alef - which is almost impossible to hear. Perhaps the accounts are so confused because this encounter itself was so unusual that it could not be easily described, even by those who experienced it. One thing is certain - the people of Israel underwent an experience at Sinai that was so powerful that it shaped their destiny and their future. They were certain that they had encountered the divine and the response to this encounter was to enter into a covenant with God to be God's people and observe God's ways. "All that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey" (Exodus 24:7). Two contrasting midrashim describe this encounter and the making of the covenant in diametrically opposing ways. Both midrashim are based on the unusual Hebrew expression - b'tahtit hahar - usually and correctly translated as "at the foot of the mountain" in the verse "Moses led the people out of the camp toward God and they stood at the foot of the mountain" (Exodus 19:17). Literally, however, this could mean "underneath the mountain." One midrash, which is very well known, says that we were forced into this - the mountain was held over the heads of the Israelites like an inverted cask and they were told, "If you accept My decrees all will be well; if not this will be your grave!" (Shabbat 88a and Rashi to the verse). The other midrash takes a completely different view. It sees the mountain as a great huppa held up above the Israelites at the wedding ceremony between Israel the bride and God the groom. "'The Lord came from Sinai' (Deuteronomy 33:2) to receive Israel as a bridegroom comes forth to meet the bride... the mountain was pulled up from its place and the people stood under the mountain... of them it is said, 'Oh my dove that is in the clefts of the rock' (Song of Songs 2:14)" (Mechilta Bahodesh 3). The Torah or the Ten Commandments is the ketuba presented by the groom to the bride. This latter interpretation has been elaborated in many customs that are followed in certain communities where a canopy is erected on the synagogue bima and where a special Shavuot ketuba is read. These two midrashim actually present us with two diametrically opposed versions of what happened at Sinai. According to the first Israel entered into the covenant with God under duress. They were given the choice, but the choice was covenant or death - not much of a choice. According to the second midrash - which is actually the older one - they joyfully accepted this covenant which was as willingly accepted and as happy an event as a wedding. Although the biblical text supports the idea that the Israelites were frightened by the enormous events at Sinai, as who would not be under those circumstances (see Exodus 20:15-18 and Deuteronomy 5:5), there is no indication that coercion was used against them. On the contrary, they are given the choice - "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession..." (Exodus 19:5); "All the people answered as one, saying, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8). These two rabbinic interpretations, then, clearly pose the question: Is religious observance to be based on compulsion or on free will, on fear or on love? I think it is clear that Judaism prefers love and free will. There are many rabbinic teachings in which love and fear are contrasted, and almost without exception love is presented as the purer and better motivation for observing the mitzvot. It is not coincidental that the book of Deuteronomy emphasizes time and time again the love of God. The twice-daily declaration that we recite - the Shema - states clearly, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). Religion from fear or coercion is not really worthy of the name. The covenant we entered at Sinai should be the expression of our love for God and our desire to live a holy life in accord with the highest standards of morality that Judaism teaches. In the words of the magnificent wedding formula that the prophet Hosea quotes in the name of God, "And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness: then you shall know the Lord" (Hosea 2:21-22). The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.