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The Power of Obligation

My Choice
Joshua Blau
A lthough I wasn’t Jewish, I
grew up going to Chabad
Hebrew school, day camp,
and shul. As I got older, my mother
and I celebrated all the Jewish holidays
Yeshiva College Class of ‘17

in a more and more Orthodox had raised me — an only child — by ‫בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את‬
fashion. It wasn’t long before I often herself for most of my life, and if she ‫ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים‬
wore a kippah and tzitzit. My mother was going through a religious process, ‫התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם‬
managed to get me into an Orthodox then so was I. My taking said process ‫א”ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה‬
day school before I was even officially seriously is inherent in my personality. ‫לאורייתא אמר רבא אעפ”כ הדור קבלוה בימי‬
Jewish (an exception to school The point remains: If I was forced into ‫אחשורוש דכתיב קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו‬
policy). Finally, at age 10, I went with Judaism, albeit circumstantially and .‫מה שקיבלו כבר‬
her to the mikvah and went through more by coercion than force, how was “…And they stood at the lowermost
the conversion process. my choice meaningful? part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). R.
The question has occasionally Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said:
occurred to me since then — as I’m A Strange Midrash [the verse] teaches that the Holy
sure it has to many gerim (converts) One, Blessed Be He, overturned the
— what would have happened had The giving of the Torah at Sinai mountain above them like a barrel,
I not converted? The question itself might be viewed as the pinnacle and said to them: If you accept the
implies a choice, but upon further of Jewish history. It was the climax Torah, excellent, and if not, there will
reflection, my choice doesn’t seem of the people’s miraculous exodus be your burial. R. Aha bar Ya’akov
to have been present at all. This type from a centuries-long slavery in said: From here is a substantial caveat
of situation, a child under the age of Egypt, a national covenant with the to [the obligation to fulfill] the Torah.
bar mitzvah converting along with a omnipotent God of their ancestors Rava said: Even so, they again accepted
parent, is precisely what necessitates and Creator of the world. A crucial it in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is
a reacceptance of the mitzvot at the part of this covenant was Bnei Yisrael’s written: “They ordained and took upon
dawn of adulthood for child gerim. end of the pact: the acceptance them…” (Esther 9:27); they ordained
Yet, even such an affirmation of one’s of the Torah and all the laws and what they had already taken upon
choice is embittered by the same systems of law therein. An oft quoted themselves.
problem: Where is indeed the choice? aggadic fragment of Gemara, found For the purposes of Purim, this
in Shabbat 88a, throws a wrench into aggadic passage strikes a chord; the
I was invested in Orthodoxy, the significance of this event. In classic
certainly; sometimes even more than holiday not only contains its own
midrashic fashion, the Gemara paints depth, but is now imbued with the
my mother, at least as far as the strict a strange picture based on the word
nature of the law was concerned. But additional significance of the real
tachtit: acceptance of the Torah. But for
this did not change the fact that I was
extremely close to my mother, who ‫ ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א”ר אבדימי בר חמא‬Shavuot, a holiday on which our

PERSPECTIVES ON CONVERSION
Special Symposium • Shavuot 5777

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
acceptance of the Torah should be listen” when they were first asked if they Here the midrash reveals its true
in far more focus, what is left by this would receive the Torah? Because [the intentions. God was threatening Bnei
midrash but a seemingly meaningless, Written Law] doesn’t involve toil and Yisrael with death, but not in the way
half-hearted acceptance of a body of effort and its laws are small in number. one might think. Instead of being
law resulting only from a sure death Rather [the holding of the mountain] instantly crushed under the weight of
sentence had it not taken place? was said about the Oral Law that has a mountain, the apprehensive nation
How could such a covenant even be many details to both stringent and less would be restrained behind a wall of
enforceable, when its participants stringent mitzvot. rock for the duration of their lives.
could claim they only agreed This would (ignoring loss of oxygen
According to Tanchuma, the Jewish
because the alternative was death? — this is a midrash, after all), rather
people were only forced to accept the
Furthermore, even if we choose not to than rendering them dead, simply
Oral Law. If the focus of the giving of
take the midrash literally, how would render them immobile. In doing so,
the Torah was the Written Law and
such a counterintuitive angle on this imprisonment would theoretically
the Oral Law simply came along with
history deepen our perception of the remove all meaning from the people’s
it, the problem posed by this midrash
already momentous occasion of the lives, leaving the collective as a mere
is minimized. However, this is not the
giving of the Torah? shell of what it would have been,
case. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch,
at least in purpose, with the Torah.
We might attempt to limit the scope in a beautiful essay on Shavuot,1
In an exaggerated sense, this is the
of the problem by narrowing its explains that the significance of our
central tenet of the midrash; God was,
subject. An alternate version of annual holiday marking the giving
in forcing the people to accept the
the midrash in Shabbat is found in of the Torah indeed is concentrated
Torah, simultaneously imparting the
Tanchuma, beginning the same way on the cruciality of the Oral Law, not
notion that their lives would be empty
but, instead of continuing to discuss the Written Law (though the latter
without it.
the first statement’s implication or is, of course, certainly necessary). If
continuation in history, taking a the import of the events at Sinai was This point is manifest on two
radically different turn: Bnei Yisrael’s acceptance of the Oral levels, respectively contained in the
Law specifically, and this was the two versions of the midrash. The
‫ולא קבלו ישראל את התורה עד שכפה עליהם‬
very portion of the Torah that they Gemara’s presentation addresses the
‫הקב”ה את ההר כגיגית שנאמר ויתיצבו‬
were forced to accept, what are we consequence of a relationship with
‫בתחתית ההר ואמר רב דימי בר חמא א”ל‬
celebrating on Shavuot? God without an accompanying Law.
‫הקב”ה לישראל אם מקבלים אתם את התורה‬
God held a hollow mountain over the
‫ ואם‬,‫ מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם‬A closer look at the midrash reveals a
people to symbolize that this type of
‫ תאמר על התורה שבכתב כפה עליהם את‬detail with interesting implications.
relationship is purposeless. Without
‫ ההר והלא משעה שאמר להן מקבלין אתם‬Of anything to compare a mountain
the Torah, they would feel trapped
‫ ענו כלם ואמרו נעשה ונשמע‬,‫ את התורה‬to, the midrash strangely picks a gigit,
in a hollow existence. Tanchuma
‫ מפני שאין בה יגיעה וצער והיא מעט אלא‬which is a tub or barrel. One might
makes a similar point, emphasizing
‫ אמר להן על התורה שבע”פ שיש בה דקדוקי‬think that, if a mountain hovering in
the importance of the Oral Law
... ‫ מצות קלות וחמורות‬the sky waiting to drop on millions
specifically.
The Jewish people did not accept the of people were to resemble anything,
Torah until the Holy One, Blessed Be the pictorial simile would certainly It is in this vein that the midrash
He held the mountain over them like a not be hollow. Not only does such an supplies insight into Shavuot as it
barrel, as it states “And they stood at the object not accurately represent the appears through Hirschian lenses.
lowermost part of the mount,” and R. internal structure of a mountain, but Without the Oral Torah, the
Dimi bar Hama said: The Holy One, it would also seemingly not convey Written Torah would be difficult
Blessed Be He said to the Jewish people: the idea the midrash is attempting to if not impossible to understand,
If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if portray. God explicitly threatens the inflexible, and limited in time scope.
not, there will be your burial. If you will people with death — “if not, there will Furthermore, the nation’s continuity
say that He held the mountain over them be your burial” — so why not do so is dependent upon the generational
for the Written Law, did not the Jewish with something that would kill them transmission established by the Oral
people respond “We will do and we will immediately? Torah. This fact is again related back

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
to our midrash by the version in the therefore, we celebrate what truly their potential. My upbringing has
Mechilta of R. Shimon bar Yochai: makes us what we are, despite — nay, allowed me to fully internalize a key
‫ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר מלמד שכפה עליהם‬ because of — the fact that it was not ingredient in a Torah life: obligation
‫הקב״ה את ההר כגגית ואמר אם מקבלין‬ really a choice. without choice.
‫אתם עליכם את התורה [מוטב] ואם לאו כאן‬ While a choice of Judaism, as opposed
‫תהא קבורתכם באותה שעה געו כולן בבכייה‬ My Choice: Redux to birth or coercion into it, may be
‫ושפכו לבם כמים בתשובה ואמרו כל אשר‬ more impressive, it is certainly no
‫דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע (כ”ד ז’) אמר הקב”ה‬ As I have moved from local Chabad less meaningful. One of the greatest
to slightly yeshivish middle school
‫ערבים אני צריך הרי שמים וארץ יערבנו אמר‬ factors of the meaning and fortitude
to Modern Orthodox high school to
‫להן עסיקין הן אמרו בנינו יערבונו אמר הרי‬ of our tradition, and of the Oral Torah
Gush to YU, I have befriended many a on a broader scale, is the fact that it
.‫ערבים טובים‬
“…And they stood at the lowermost peer from different backgrounds and is not chosen. Instead, it was, even in
part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17), with different interests and skill levels. the beginning, “forced” upon us as an
[the verse] teaches that the Holy One, Almost none of them know about my integral component of our brit with
Blessed Be He, overturned the mountain background. I made it somewhat of a God. It is not only the Oral Torah, but
above them like a barrel, and said to policy to not outright tell people that I this aspect of coercion itself which is
am a ger unless directly prompted. The necessary for national survival and
them: If you accept the Torah, excellent,
and if not, here will be your burial. Atdecision largely developed from my the deep meaning and beauty behind
that moment, they all cried out in tearsbashfulness, but at least in my head, I what we do every day, week, and
had good reasons for remaining quiet
and their hearts poured out like water in year. This experience should be, even
repentance and they said “All that God about my origins. There was a latent needs to be, available for every Jew,
fear, perhaps irrational, perhaps not,
said, we will do and we will listen.” The regardless of background or means
Holy One, Blessed Be He said: I need that people would view me differently of entrance into our nation. Part of
guarantors. [They said], let the heaven if they knew. Maybe their expectations our obligation to welcome the ger
and earth be the guarantors. He said for me would be lowered. Maybe their is to recognize that while his or her
to them, they are busy. They said, our esteem for me would grow. entry to Judaism was by choice, it
children will be our guarantors. He said,
While I wanted to be acknowledged was a choice to bind oneself by the
these are good guarantors. for my identity, I also scornfully same obligations incumbent on all
harbored anxiety for these Jewish people. It is this binding, this
One might question the connection
sense of absence of choice, that is to
between the first and second portions possibilities. I desired to be held under
of this excerpt. What does being only the highest of expectations, lest I be celebrated particularly along with
be treated as if my ability or potential our celebration of the receiving of the
forced to accept the Torah have to do
was limited. I did not deserve higher Torah on Shavuot. Along with the
with the identity of its guarantors?
esteem for simply living my life in resulting universal sense of appointed
Based on what we have already
the way it was dealt to me; I did not devotion will come a stronger and
explained, there is no non-sequitur
accomplish anything extraordinary. larger whole that we may look to with
present here. Part of the purpose of
In part, it is this attitude that has great pride as we once again revel in
the forced acceptance of the Oral
outwardly reinforced my ability to the Torah that we had no choice but
Torah was to establish the integrality
integrate to the degree that I have. to accept, and are all the happier for it.
of an oral tradition within which
children are inherently central, Gerim are often looked upon with
transforming our tradition into an utmost respect and admiration; a Endnotes
ever-blossoming tree of transmission. praiseworthy perspective, no doubt.
However, it becomes problematic 1 Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the
Had our receiving of the Oral Writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch - Vol. 1,
Torah been voluntary, the factor of when this view morphs into ger lenses,
Chapter IX, Sivan, “The Festival of Revelation
obligation to continuously pass on this and the first thing one sees is a ger and the Uniqueness of the Torah.”
body of the law to the next generation rather than a Jew. Such an attitude
would have been greatly diminished, is what I was afraid of, and is what
if not altogether absent. On Shavuot, hinders many gerim from reaching

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777