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Underneath the Mountain

Underneath the Mountain

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On the sixth day of Sivan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce), the entire nation of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai. There G-d chose us as His people and we committed ourselves to observe the laws of life as outlined in His Torah.

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) points out, however, that nearly one thousand years were to pass before our covenant with G-d was sealed. As formulated at Sinai, the contract between G-d and Israel contained certain vulnerabilities; in fact, its very validity was contestable. It was only nine-and-a-half centuries later, with the events of Purim, that our acceptance of the Torah was established upon an unshakable foundation.

The Torah tells us that prior to the revelation at Sinai, the people of Israel "stood beneath the mountain" (Exodus 19:17). How does one stand beneath a mountain? The Talmud interprets this to mean that "G-d held the mountain over them like a jar and said to them: If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave." But a most basic rule of Torah law is that a contract entered into under duress is not binding; hence, concludes the Talmud, there was a standing contest to the legality of our commitment to observe the Torah.

But during the events of Purim, the Jewish people reaffirmed their acceptance of the divine law without any hint of coercion from Above. In the words of the Book of Esther (9:27), they "established and accepted" -- meaning, says the Talmud, that they established as valid and incontestable that which they had accepted a millennium earlier at Sinai.

The Dark Ages

At Sinai, G-d revealed His very essence to man. As the Torah tells it, "G-d descended upon Mount Sinai" and we "saw the G-d of Israel." On that day, we were "shown to know that G-d is the Supreme Being; there is none else besides Him"; "Face to face G-d spoke to [us], on the mountain, from within the fire" (Exodus 19:20 and 24:10; Deuteronomy 4:35 and 5:4).

In terms of any open signs of the divine presence in our lives, the events of Purim were the diametric opposite of the revelation at Sinai. G-d's home on earth, the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, lay in ruins, its rebuilding, ordered fourteen years earlier by the emperor Cyrus, halted by Achashveirosh's decree. The era of prophecy -- G-d's direct communication to man -- was coming to a close. We were in exile, at the mercy of our enemies, and G-d seemed oblivious to the fate of His chosen people. Even the miracle of Purim was so completely clothed in natural events, that G-d's guiding hand in all that occurred was shrouded by the illusion of fortunate coincidence. This is most powerfully demonstrated by the fact that in the entire Book of Esther, there is not a single mention of G-d's name!

How did this spiritual blackout affect our commitment to G-d? It spurred us to what can be described as the greatest demonstration of our loyalty to Him in our history. For eleven months, a decree of annihilation hung over the entire community of Israel. As the Book of Esther relates, even after Haman had fallen out of favor with the king and was hanged, the decree he initiated remained in effect; the only thing that Esther was able to achieve was to prevail upon Achashveirosh to issue a second decree, in which the Jews were given the right to resist those who came to kill them. The first decree, calling upon all citizens of the realm to annihilate the Jewish minority in their midst on the 13th of Adar, remained in force until that date, when the Jews were victorious in their war against their enemies, killing 75,000 of their attackers.

For that entire year, when being a Jew meant that one's life was free for the taking by imperial decree, not a single Jew broke ranks from his people to seek safety by assimilating into the pagan populace. In fact, the Book of Esther records that that period saw many conversions to Judaism! So strongly did the Jews radiate their faith in G-d and their confidence in His salvation, that many of their neighbors were motivated to join a people with such a powerful and immutable relationship with G-d.

Therein lies the deeper significance of the "coercion" to accept the Torah at Sinai and the validation of our covenant with G-d achieved on Purim.

At Sinai, we had no choice. Faced with such an awesome revelation of the divine truth, one could hardly doubt or dissent. In effect, we were forced to accept the Torah; overwhelmed and completely enveloped by the divine reality ("the mountain held over them like a jar"), we could not but commit ourselves to our divinely ordained mission and role.

But a thousand years later, we reaffirmed this commitment under entirely different conditions. The divine presence did not hover over us, compelling us to recognize its truth. On the contrary: the divine face was hidden. We were on our own, our commitment to G-d deriving wholly from within, from an inner choice to cleave to Him regardless of how invisible He remained to us.

So Why the Coercion?

This is not to say that on Purim a new, valid contract replaced the original, contestable one. If that were the case, what was the point of the revelation at Sinai? Certainly, the Torah was a binding commitment between ourselves and G-d for the 950 years from Moses to Esther. If we look closely at the Talmud's interpretation of the verse from the Book of Esther, it says that the people of Israel "established what they had already accepted": Purim was the fulfillment and corroboration of a truth that had already been implemented at Mount Sinai.

That truth is that our relationship with G-d is not bounded by reason. It is not dependent upon our understanding of it, or even upon our conscious awareness of its existence. It transcends our conscious self, residing in the very core of our souls.

This was why we were compelled to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Not because we would not have freely chosen to do so on our own, but because a consciously chosen commitment could not begin to express the true extent of our acceptance of the Torah.

Our covenant with G-d extends beyond the finite world of our conscious desires, embracing the infinite expanses of our supra-conscious self -- the supra-conscious self that always sees G-d and is unequivocally aware of His truth. At Sinai, this supra-conscious self was revealed. Our conscious self, comprising but a minute corner of our soul, was completely overwhelmed and its choice-making mechanisms were completely silenced.

This was the true significance of what occurred when we stood beneath the mountain. But for many centuries, the events at Sinai were open to misinterpretation. In our own minds, we remembered the event as a time when we were overwhelmed by the divine truth and compelled to accept it. Did this come from within, from a place in our souls not accessible by the conscious self? Or perhaps it came from without, from an external force which coerced us, against our own true will, into our covenant with G-d?

Then came Purim, with its total eclipse of all perceivable G-dliness. To remain a Jew, to remain loyal to our covenant with G-d, was a choice uninfluenced by any supra-conscious revelations. By choosing to accept the Torah under such circumstances, we affirmed that this is the true will of the Jew. We affirmed that our "coercion" at Sinai was not against our will, but in complete harmony with our true desire.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Discussion (2)
May 3, 2013
build for me a temple and i shall always be here - God is still at the temple, though a wall is all that remains, he is there
Anonymous
April 6, 2008
Very enjoyable!
Thanks so much for the insight. I appreciate the article's historicity.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
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