Between the Lines—Yitro

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Babylonian Talmud Masechet Shabbat 88a

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר (שמות יט). 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

"They stood below the mount . . . (Exod. 19:17)." R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Blessed Holy One overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there (at Mount Sinai) shall be your burial.' R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Rava: Nonetheless, the [entire] generation re-accepted it in the days of Achashverosh, for it is written, "The Jews undertook and obligated themselves . . . (Esther 9:27)"—they confirmed what they had already accepted.

I have encountered few rabbinic texts that succinctly make as many radical claims as this midrashic discussion. We find here interpretations that upend the plain meaning of the quoted verses as well as the value-concepts of revelation and covenant. In short, these rabbis teach us not to take for granted but to question these most basic aspects of Judaism.

Playing with the term b'tachtit, R. Abdimi turns the Mount Sinai narrative upside down. He transforms the image of Israel figuratively standing below the mountain, at its base, to imagine that the people literally stood "below" it—underneath the mountain itself! The translation above reflects this topsy-turvy revelation scene, in which our preconceived notions are "overturned" and "inverted" like the image of Mount Sinai. This retelling of how Israel received the Torah has wide-ranging implications for how we understand our relationships with God, Torah, and Jewish law.

Indeed, rather than presenting the romantic idea of Torah as a gift from God, R. Abdimi contends that revelation entailed an offer Israel could not dare to refuse. If God coerced Israel into accepting the Torah and all of its laws, then the legitimacy and sanctity of God, Torah, and the covenant are all severely diminished. This subversive "protest" interpretation directly challenges God's denial of consent for recently liberated slaves, who appear in this reading to move from forced labor under Pharaoh's oppression to coerced obedience under God's law.

The talmudic passage resolves those issues with another dramatic midrashic interpretation. The famed Sage Rava claims that the phrase from the book of Esther applies not just to the observance of the Purim holiday but to the whole of Torah. His contention that "the Jews undertook and obligated themselves" to the covenant with God is especially striking because neither God nor any aspect of Torah observance are mentioned in the Book of Esther. Rava asserts that, regardless of what happened at Sinai, our spiritual ancestors collectively affirmed the legitimacy and authority of the Torah on their own terms later in history.

This combination of protest and affirmation offers a compelling model for Conservative Judaism today. We reject the all-or-nothing argument of those who insist that there always has been and always will be only one way to lead a Jewish life. At the same time, we embrace the power of covenantal community, in which we see that shared ritual and ethical values bind us together with collective responsibility and a common destiny. Let us champion this path of inclusion and mutuality as the way to discovering our true partnership with God in creation.