The Rabbis tell two stories about how Israel accepted the Torah. The first is a modern retelling of an ancient midrash by Rabbis Rick and Ellissa Sherwin:
God had gone to the nations of the earth and asked them to accept a gift, the Torah. One nation asked, “What does it say?” God answered, “You shall not murder.” The nation responded, “We understand that we must not wantonly take life, but what about murdering one’s hopes, murdering one’s reputation, murdering one’s chances? After all God, business is business, and sometimes business is murder”.We cannot accept the Torah.
Another nation asked, “What does it say?” God responded, “You shall not steal.” The nation paused, then responded, “We understand we cannot take things that belong to other people, but what about stealing ideas, stealing emotions, not being open with the I.R.S.?” This nation, too, rejected the Torah.
A third nation asked, “What is in it?” God responded, “You shall have no other Gods before you.” The nation laughed. We understand that you are the God to be worshipped, but we cannot promise that You will always be our highest priority. We might need to set everything aside for money, for physical appearance, for sports prowess, for entertainment, for work. We cannot promise that we will keep you in mind.”
After all the nations of the world said “no” to the gift of Torah, God approached the Israelites. They said to G-d, “What is in it?” G-d responded, “Six Hundred and Thirteen commandments.” Israel immediately accepted the Torah with the words, “All that G-d has spoken we will do and be obedient.”
This is not in the Torah, but it is a nice story. I always wonder what issues a rabbinic story is addressing. Perhaps this story is in response to the idea that Israel is the “Chosen People”. People – both Jews and non-Jews — might misunderstand the concept of “chosen-ness” as conferring a claim of superiority on behalf of the Jewish people. The story teaches us that many other nations of the world had an opportunity to be “Chosen” by G-d, but they passed it up for one reason or another. In this story, it is Israel that does the choosing, not G-d. We are, in effect, the “Choosing People” not the “Chosen People”.
As I said, the Rabbis tell TWO stories about Israel accepting the Torah. The second story is quite different. As the Jewish people gather around Mount Sinai, G-d lifts the mountain and holds it over the heads of Israel. G-d says, “If you accept the Torah, then, well and good – otherwise you will find your grave under this mountain!”
Given that choice, what would YOU do? If you accept the Torah, you will live. If you reject it, you will die. Not too much of a choice here. You would probably do what the Israelites did in THIS version of the story, say, “All that G-d has spoken we will do and will be obedient”.
The answer is the same in the second story as in the first, but the motivation is very different. In the first story, Israel accepts the Torah out of a love for the Creator. In the second story, Israel accepts the Torah out of fear for its life.
When we read our parasha for this week, we might be inclined to believe the second story about G-d coercing the Jewish people into accepting the Torah. For in this parasha, Moses berates the Jewish people for being rebellious and stubborn. They sound just like a people who have had a mountain held over their heads and forced to accept the Torah. They then resent it, rebel against it, and try to undermine it at each turn along the way. Moses calls them a “stiff-necked” people. He tells them that they did nothing to deserve inheriting the Promised Land. They are only inheriting the Land by virtue of the promise that G-d made to their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. They have yet to prove themselves as worthy. If they mess up when they are in the land, the land will spew them out. Their right to the land is not based upon a claim of moral superiority. It is based on a pledge that was made to their forefathers and contingent upon their following G-d’s laws.
Moses does not white-wash things. He holds up Israel’s deficiencies to the light of day. He enumerates the moral failings that they will have to overcome if they are to stay and prosper in the land. He reminds them of the long road in the wilderness that they have traveled these forty years that brought them to this point in time, to the border of the Land of Canaan. He urges them to make their lives in the Land conform to the laws and teaching that he has transmitted to them in the wilderness.
That remains our task to this very day. The individuals who stood at the Jordan River and heard the words of Moses are long gone, but we, Israel, live on. We are the inheritors of the dream. We are the carriers of the tradition. It is now our responsibility to live our lives according to the teachings of G-d and Moses and to transmit Judaism to the next generation.
The tasks entrusted to the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the prophets and to the priests, are now our tasks. No one can do this for us. It cannot be delegated to others. The Torah, it is said, is “a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Like our ancestors of old, we must choose Torah – and choose life.