6/12/2005

Reading of Shabbat 88a: God and Israel's Shotgun Wedding

Alternatively (this is what I'm calling it for the shiur tomorrow):
Freedom and Compulsion in the Giving of the Torah

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פח עמוד א

שמות יט+ ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש. דכתיב +אסתר
ט+ קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר. אמר חזקיה: מאי דכתיב +תהלים עו+ משמים השמעת דין ארץ יראה ושקטה אם יראה למה שקטה, ואם שקטה למה יראה? אלא: בתחילה - יראה, ולבסוף - שקטה. ולמה יראה - כדריש לקיש, דאמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב +בראשית א+ ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי, ה"א יתירה למה לי? - מלמד שהתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא עם מעשה בראשית, ואמר להם: אם ישראל מקבלים התורה - אתם מתקיימין, ואם לאו - אני מחזיר אתכם לתוהו ובוהו.

אמר רבי אלעזר: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן: מי גילה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו? דכתיב +תהלים קג+ ברכו ה' מלאכיו גברי כח עשי דברו לשמע בקול דברו, ברישא עשי, והדר לשמע. אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מאי דכתיב +שיר השירים ב+ כתפוח בעצי היער וגו' למה נמשלו ישראל לתפוח - לומר לך: מה תפוח זה פריו קודם לעליו, אף ישראל - הקדימו נעשה לנשמע.

And they stood under the mount:16 R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,'If ye accept the Torah, 'tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.' R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.17 Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]:18 [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. Hezekiah said: What is meant by, Thou didst cause sentence to be heard from Heaven; The earth feared, and was tranquil:19 if it feared, why was it tranquil, and if it was tranquil, why did it fear? But at first it feared, yet subsequently it was tranquil,20 And why did it fear? — Even in accordance with Resh Lakish. For Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day;21 What is the purpose of the additional 'the'?22 This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said thereto. 'If Israel accepts the Torah, ye shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.'23

…R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, Who
revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, Bless the Lord, ye angels of his. Ye mighty in strength, that fulfil his word, That hearken unto the voice of his word:31 first they fulfil and then they hearken? R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What is meant by, As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, [So is my beloved among the sons]:32 why were the Israelites compared to an apple tree? To teach you: just as the fruit of the apple tree precedes its leaves,33 so did the Israelites give precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken'.

NOTE: If you don’t have the patience, skip down to Levinas’ interpretation – the last one in this post. It’s the best interpretation, IMHO, by far.

Points for Discussion:

  • There’s an abrupt shift in this passage. One minute it’s talking about the absolute necessity of the Israelites accepting the Torah. The existence of the world depends on it. The next minute, they’re praising the voluntary acceptance of the Torah. Which is it? Can it be both? Is it talking about two different elements of acceptance? Two different times?
  • One approach (Maharal, as he’s generally understood), is that the acceptance was voluntary, but then imposed. The goal was to make sure that the Israelites knew the importance of what they were getting into.
  • Tosafot distinguish between types of Torah. They talk about Oral Law vs. Written Law, but that type of distinction can theoretically be applied elsewhere (i.e., Biblical vs. Rabbinic, Chukim vs. Mishpatim).
  • The way I understood the Maharal (and which I think is a good idea even if it’s not ‘p’shat in the Maharal) is that, in the first instance, the Israelites were given a choice – Torah or Death. Just because one of the choices is obviously the right choice doesn’t mean that there’s no choice. Essentially, it’s a choice between good and evil. We know that we have that choice, between good and evil, life and death.
    Taking that one step further, think of this from God’s perspective. If the telos of creation rests upon this moment, then if the Israelites deny the Torah, they have essentially condemned themselves to death. With nothing special about them, they would go the way of so many other ancient civilizations. They would have died in the desert, only to be uncovered by curious archaeologists millennia later. If they accept the Torah, then they enter history. If not, they will die. Thisapproach dovetails nicely with the approach of the Meshech Chochmah –
  • The Meshech Chochmah really addresses the entire narrative – the moda’ah, the age of Achashveirosh, the problem of ‘punishment’ during the first Temple period, and the ‘compulsion’ issue. He explains that the compulsion derives from the basic inability of the Israelites at that time to deny God. Having ended centuries of slavery, having been miraculously brought to that point, they were in no position to reject anything that God had to offer. They were overawed and vulnerable. However, that situation continued right up until the end of the First Temple. The existence of prophecy, Jewish monarchy, continuous miracles in the Temple and through prophets, really kept God ‘in their faces’ – i.e., unable to deny His presence. That situation only begins to change in the times of Achashveirosh. Remember that Megillat Esther is characterized by God’s ‘absence’. At that point, an affirmation of the Covenant with God, the acceptance of the Torah, is strictly voluntary, and it remains so today in the sense that we are not ‘forced’, by any external pressures to adhere to the Torah.
  • Levinas’ take (in Nine Talmudic readings, the chapter entitled ‘The Temptation of Temptation) he asks the following question (warning: if you’ve never read existentialist philosophy, this will give you a headache): How does someone become responsible? If one chooses to be responsible, then one has already demonstrated responsibility by making that choice – therefore, he’s already responsible, and the question returns. If he’s forced to be responsible, then he’s not really responsible at all, because he’s compelled and therefore not acting autonomously, which true responsibility requires (read that a couple of times; it really does make sense). He solves this with our Gemara – in order for one to become responsible, there needs to be a prior compulsion of responsibility. Only after the fact, when one affirms their will to act in that way, does one truly become responsible. However, acting responsibly is a prerequisite for being responsible. Anyone who has kids knows that Levinas is dead-on: the way that our kids learn to make good choices is by NOT being given those choices when they’re very young. God, ever the Good Parent, will not give His infant child, the nascent Israelite nation, the ‘choice’ of what’s good for them. It’s only when the nation arrives at its collective adolescence, rebels, and insists on greater independence, that one can retrospectively affirm that which was originally compelled. The beauty of Levinas’ interpretation is that ‘na’aseh ve-nishma’ is a function of the EXACT same principle: the great ‘secret’ is that ‘na’aseh’ must be a prerequisite for ‘nishma’ – one can’t truly understand and integrate the Torah on a strictly theoretical level; it must first become routine, part of the patterns of life, before it can be understood and affirmed. Isn’t that the entire mitzvah of chinuch?

    I’d add that what’s true of Torah life – that Shabbat is learned by living it, not by reading ArtScroll books about it – is true of really any system of complicated rules. The best way to learn the rules of the game of baseball is to play. You’ll make mistakes, but it works a whole lot better than reading the rule book.

Chag Same'ach.

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