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  • Writer's pictureNitzotzos

Parshas Yisro - Live or Die

"They stood in the bottom of the mountain." (Shemos 19:17) The passuk ought to have said that Klal Yisrael was standing "at" the bottom of the mountain. What could the Torah possibly mean when it says we were standing"in" the bottom of the mountain?

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) explains that this passuk is actually meant to be taken literally. The Jews were actually standing inside the mountain! The Gemara says that Hashem held Har Sinai over Klal Yisrael and said to them either accept the Torah or this will be the place that you are buried.

Tosafos asks, why was this necessary? The Jews had already said "naaseh vinishma" expressing their sincere intent to be mekabel the Torah. Why would it be necessary to hold the mountain over their heads and threaten them with death when they have already committed? Tosafos answers that there was a chance that Klal Yisrael would retract when they saw the great fire on Har Sinai. The fire was so exceptional that it caused their souls to fly out of their bodies. Tosafos suggests that there was a concern that the experience would be so overwhelming that Klal Yisrael would not be willing to accept the Torah.

But even with Tosafos answer, the entire story seems somewhat sadistic. Is this the way a loving God behaves? Either accept my Torah or face certain death? Is this the way God wants us to accept his most precious possession? If we are to take on God's mission in this world should it be because we were coerced? Tosafos obviously has these insights as well. Why did Tosafos not ask these same questions?

The Chachamim must have seen something deeper in this passuk to give us such a seemingly outlandish explanation.

Ups and Downs

The Baal Shem Tov explains that there are two different modalities that we have in our relationships. There are times when we are passionate, excited and enthusiastic. Things are going well, the love that we have our significant other is in full bloom and we cannot imagine it being any other way. In times like these we feel as if our relationship is fully intact. However, there are also times when things are far from great. The relationship has lost its luster. The passion is gone. Perhaps we even feel hurt, scared and angry. In times of great pain we feel like our relationship is broken. We take our feelings as a sign that the relationship that was, is no longer.

The same is true of our relationship with Hashem. There are times when we are passionate about our avodas Hashem and times when we simply don't feel anything. There are times when we have this burning fire to make the most of our lives and there are times when we really feel apathetic. When we are feeling great about our Yahadus we think the relationship is intact but when we are feeling down we often make the mistake of thinking that our relationship with Hashem is over.

Functional vs Essential

There are two different types of relationships. Functional relationships and essential relationships. In a functional relationship the goal of the relationship is to fill a particular need. I hire a gardener to manicure my lawn. I hire a dentist to fix my teeth. These relationships don't require any emotion. They simply require that you get the job done. However, if I was a gardener and I saw that my client was dissatisfied with my work I would be concerned that our professional relationship is coming to an end.

In an essential relationship it is just the opposite. There is no function to the relationship. The goal of a marriage, for example, is not to achieve a particular purpose. Certainly there are important projects that a couple will take on (ie. building a family) but those are symptoms of the intimacy of the marriage, not causes. If a couple chas vishalom cannot have children they are not obligated to get divorced because the intimacy that the couple experiences is meaningful by and for itself. Not having children can be exceptionally painful because the natural byproduct of intimacy is family but it does not mean that the union is flawed in any way. In an essential relationship the goal is simply the continuation of the relationship. As one Rebbe once told me, "The goal of marriage is to stay married."Of course, if the relationship has become immoral or abusive there is room for divorce but simply because a couple no longer feels the way they once did is not a reason to terminate the marriage. In fact the opposite might be true. When we feel passionate about our marriage, in a certain way we are serving ourselves. When we feel no passion for the marriage we can see who we are actually serving. If our commitment to the relationship is based on the feelings we feel then when we no longer feel that way it will be reflected in our commitment or lack thereof.

A Rebbe of mine, who also serves as a marriage therapist, once told me the following anecdote. A couple in crisis walked into his office and told him that he was their very last stop before they get divorced. The relationship had lost its luster and they simply could not find their way back to one another. The therapist told them that he was happy to help them but that they would first need to commit to taking divorce off the table for a minimum of six months. He explained to them that as long as divorce is an option the marriage is not calibrated for success. Intimacy is the progeny of commitment. Without commitment there is no place for intimacy to develop. Our intimacy is revealed when we feel positive about relationship. Our commitment is seen when we don't.

Live or Die

This then is the reason that Hashem held the mountain over our head by Kabbalas HaTorah. It is true that we had already said naaseh vinishma but that only revealed one dimension of our relationship. Hashem did not want our relationship to be functional. If our relationship with Hashem was merely functional, I don't think we would have been worthy of our relationship lasting this long. But thankfully God said that he wanted an essential relationship with us. Holding the mountain over our head wasn't to force us into accepting the Torah. We had already done that. But as Tosafos pointed out, if we chose the relationship we could also choose not to participate in the relationship. When we are scared of the fire our natural response is to pull back in fear. By holding the mountain over our heads God ensured that our relationship was not a choice. Now we don't choose our relationship with God. It's live or die.

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