There’s a famous midrash on Parshas Yisro detailing how Hashem held Har Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people like a barrel, instructing them to accept the Torah, with a consequence of death in the desert if they didn’t. The midrash extrapolates this from the words בתחתית ההר (Shemos 19:17), which means “under the mountain.”
The coercive picture this midrash paints is perplexing, especially with the virtuous image we were familiar with; namely, that the Jewish people essentially jumped at the chance to accept the Torah (na’aseh) before they even heard (nishma) what this would require from them.
A closer look at the context reveals a possible way to reconcile these seemingly independent and opposite views.
There are several places within this same perek that, instead of naming Har Sinai, the Torah uses an iteration of the word har, mountain. Just two of those are used to reference the Jewish nation’s position in relation to the mountain. The first is upon the Jews’ arrival at Har Sinai, the Torah says they rested נגד ההר, opposite the mountain (19:2), and the second instance is the one referenced in the midrash above.
The gematria for the word ההר is 210, which, coincidentally, is also the time the Jewish people spent in slavery in Egypt. With this in mind, we can read the pesukim and satisfy a little bit of both midrashim.
Having survived years of slavery, the exodus, a treacherous walk in the desert and a pursuit by Pharaoh and his army, the Jewish people arrive at Har Sinai in a state that can be so eloquently phrased as נגד ההר; free of the oppression and constant threat to their existence, they have taken a 180-degree turn and are truly liberated and at rest.
Now, pesukim later, the Torah describes this liberated nation as resting בתחתית ההר—under the mountain. Hakadosh Baruch Hu, having taken them out of Egypt by way of miracle after miracle, holds the 210 years of suffering and slavery over their heads, asking this nation to once again submit to a Higher Power and accept the Torah. Despite having every reason to protest yet another form of subservience, they recognize the goodness and truth represented in what Hashem is offering them and jump at the chance, regardless of the possible threat to their perceived new freedom.
Let us recall that the first midrash ends with Hashem saying that if the Jews don’t accept the Torah, the desert will be their grave. Far too often we equate freedom with privilege and independence, neither of which necessarily indicate a productive or fruitful existence. Hashem is pointing out to the Jews that freedom is less important than purpose, for without something to live for, you will surely perish. The Torah is nothing but purpose. The Jewish people, recognizing this, and jumping at the chance to accept the Torah regardless of what that entails, now establish themselves as a virtuous and laudable nation, and not one intimidated into submission.
Yehuda Schupper is director of communications for New York State Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein. He lives in Hillside, NJ, with his wife and children and can be reached by emailing [email protected].