We can understand why God offered the Torah to the Israelites – it was the fulfillment of a promise made to Avraham and family. But why did the Israelites accept it so willingly? Were they so grateful for having been freed from Egypt that they accepted the Torah sight unseen? Was their slave mentality so entrenched that they needed rules and directions for everything they did? These questions arise with the story of Mount Sinai, the thunderous voice of God reciting the Ten Commandments, or the first one, after which the people panicked and Moshe had to finish the job.
Evidently the rabbis also felt something was not quite right. Why else would they make up the famous midrash in which the Israelites were not standing at the FOOT of the mountain but UNDER the mountain. God lifted the mountain over them and said, If you accept the Torah all’s well and good. If you don’t, you die here. Did CHAZAL feel that the people must have been forced to accept rules and regulations sight unseen?
There are also more complimentary midrashim, such as the one in which God goes to all the great nations offering them the Torah. Each one refuses it because the prohibitions against killing and stealing and the like limit their style too much. Only the Israelites say, Bring it on! We will do and then we will hear what we’re supposed to do.
But is that such a positive picture? One could argue that we were so hungry for someone to tell us what to do – after being lifted out of the orderly life of slavery – that we said, Give us something. Anything.
Yet another view of why God chose us appears in the Talmud. Rabbi Meir asks why the Torah was given to the Israelites? It was not, he says, because we were so obedient. Rather it was because we were so impudent. As Adam Kirsh explains, the Israelites had such a hard time obeying laws and showing respect to God that they needed a “fiery law,” one that was strict enough and punitive enough to bring them and keep them in line.
Kirsh theorizes that the rabbis had experienced much stiff-necked non-observance of their own rulings by the average Chaim Yankel, and wanted to let off some steam. But it’s also possible that this opinion was shaped in part by the powerlessness of the Jews, wherever they went (outside of Judea). The explanation is something like this: If it was only the Torah that kept the Jews’ “fiery” nature in check, imagine what toughness and violence they would be capable of without the law! “Were it not for the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people, no nation or tongue could withstand them,” the Talmud says.
This is also a paradoxically consoling thought that betrays ambivalence about the whole notion of being chosen. If this is what we’re like with God’s law, it seems to say, imagine what we could do without it. It’s a case of “Let me go, hold me back.”
In contrast to this vision of a fierce fiery set of laws, Israel’s great poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a poem in which he envisions a softer, gentler approach to the Ten Commandments and mitzvoth. It’s called My Father Was God.
father was God and didn’t know it. He gave me
the ten commandments neither in thunder nor in fury, neither in fire nor in cloud but in gentleness and in love.
added caresses and added kind words
adding, “I beg you,” and “please.”
sang keep and remember in a single melody and he pleaded and cried
quietly between one commandment and the next:
Don’t take your God’s name in vain; don’t take it, not in vain.
I beg you, don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear:
Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder.
And he put the palms of his open hands on my head in the Yom Kippur blessing.
Honor, love, in order that your days might be long on the earth.
my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later, he turned his face to me one last time
like on the day he died in my arms and said, I want to add
two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment: “Don’t change.”
And the twelfth commandment: “You must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and went off
disappearing into his strange distances.
The quiet power of the poem reflects a sublimation of the fiery experience at Mount Sinai into a personal, love-imbued view of a father who instilled values, not through fire, smoke and threats but through gentleness, as the opening lines indicate.
Would such a soft approach work today? Probably not. Too many people would take advantage of it. We live in a time of thunder, lightning, fire and smoke, with threats pouring in from all sides. Paradoxically, excessive exposure to such loud and nerve-racking stimuli has the effect of making us both irritable and unresponsive. We see and hear but we are too worn out to respond. As with the unending election campaigns.
But deep down, we all need some of the warmth and gentleness provided by Amichai’s father-god. We need to know that no matter what, we have understanding and love.