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June 10, 2016 7:40 am

The Reason Why the Jews Accepted the Torah

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Students in a yeshiva on Shavuot. Photo: provided.

Students in a yeshiva on Shavuot. Photo: provided.

One of my favorite Midrashim describes God’s attempt to find a nation willing to accept His Torah. The Midrash depicts the nascent Jewish nation’s willingness to embrace the Torah, and juxtaposes their enthusiasm with the reaction of other nations who refuse the Torah on the basis that it includes elements they deem intolerable.

At first, God approaches the descendants of Yishmael and asks them if they want the Torah. “What does it contain?” they inquire. “Do not steal,” God replies. “In that case,” they respond, “it is not for us.” The descendants of Esav similarly reject the Torah, in their case because it prohibits murder, while the descendants of Ammon and Moab, nations whose origins are rooted in an incestuous liaison between Lot and his two daughters, rebuff the Torah because it prohibits incest. The Midrash concludes with God offering the Torah to the Jews, who make no inquiries as to its content, simply declaring in unison: “we will do what it says, and we will listen to what it says.”

The Midrash is clearly fanciful; it is pretty obvious that the interactions between God and these other nations never actually took place. It seems, therefore, that the Midrash is purely message orientated, and the message appears at first glance to be our unconditional willingness to abide by the Torah, as opposed to the attitudes of the other nations. The problem with this being the only message is that it fails to acknowledge the unfairness of God’s exchanges with those other nations. After all, if His first and only demand was that they renounce their favorite sin, surely He was setting them up to say no? Why didn’t He tell them that the Torah contains Shabbat and Festivals, or the laws concerning sacrifices, or honoring one’s parents? These would have been mitzvoth these other cultures could have embraced immediately, and then, in the fullness of time, their observance of these palatable parts of the Torah might have led them to abandon their cherished sin.

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It is also worth reflecting on the fact that God confronted each nation with their Achilles heal, driving them into an Orwellian “Room 101” before they even had the chance to see what else the Torah had to offer. Would the Jews have fared any better in the same situation? It is all very well to say that we declared our allegiance to the Torah without demanding to know its content, but over the weeks and months that followed, we failed God and His Torah on countless occasions. Perhaps those other nations should be commended for having been more honest in their response. By rejecting the Torah they had demonstrated a greater self-awareness than we did.

The late Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem BeYavneh, Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht z”l, suggests that the response of the Jews to God’s inquiry demonstrated that we had conquered their greatest weakness of all — our almost instinctive lack of unity and mutual respect. But when we declared in unison, “We will do, we will hear,” we demonstrated our ability to rise above the sum of our parts by putting aside our differences, and becoming one nation in the service of God. This idea is hinted at elsewhere in the story of Mount Sinai: in anticipation of the Sinai revelation the Torah first says of the Jews that “they came to Sinai, they camped in the desert” — all in the plural. But once the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai, they are referred to in the singular. Rashi quotes a Midrash stating that at Mount Sinai the Jews were “like one man, with one heart.”

Although Rabbi Goldvicht’s thesis is compelling, it still leaves an open question. If the nations of Yishmael, Esav, Ammon, and Moav each collectively rejected the Torah, surely their unity for this purpose is equally laudable? The answer lies in the difference between a unity that is based on selfishness and a unity that is based on empathy for others. One of the definitive characteristics of sociopaths and psychopaths is their lack of empathy. They have little or no ability to understand and share the feelings of others, which results in behavior that is risky or harmful to others, as they are not inhibited by guilt, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or remorse. The unity of the nations that rejected the Torah was based purely on this type of selfishness and self-interest — each nation was a collection of psychopaths and sociopaths acting not as a singular unit, but as a unit of multiple individuals motivated by common interest. Ultimately there is no such thing as common interest for a psychopath, only individual self-interest. God needed to know if these nations could let go of the parts of their national culture that would eventually lead to a complete breakdown of their societies. But the answer was an unequivocal no, and He knew then that these nations were all doomed to oblivion.

The Jews were different. Uppermost in each of their minds was a desire to help others and to be there for others, even if this meant that their individual lives would suffer. If God assured them that the Torah was good for the nation as a whole, even if as individuals they might struggle with one or another of its many rules, or even if they could not always match up to its requirements, they knew what they had to do. Of course they failed this ideal from time to time, but overall, and over millennia, our success as a nation has stemmed from this one overriding trait — the individual desire of each and every one of us to concern ourselves for the welfare of others at our own cost, so that our nation as a whole can thrive and prosper. And so we can be true to our original declaration of “we shall do, we shall hear.”

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  • Yaakov

    The Jews may have been different then, but perhaps we should focus on why most people today who call themselves Jews have rejected the Torah. I’m not talking about halacha but rather the ethical precepts that govern the Jewish way of life.

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