Did Bnai Yisrael Have a Choice? by Mordy Friedman



    The high point in Sefer Shemos is the cosmic event of Hashem revealing Himself to the Jewish people at Har Sinai and giving them the Torah.  Upon careful examination of the Pesukim, though, we notice that the final acceptance of the Torah, when the people exclaimed "נעשה ונשמע," "we will do and we will listen" (שמות כ"ד:ז'), may not have come immediately as the Torah was given in Parshas Yisro, as is commonly perceived.  This famous statement by Bnai Yisrael came some time after Mattan Torah, according to many Meforshim, as described in this week's Parsha, Parshas Mishpatim.      Chazal often convey the impression that Bnai Yisrael, when saying נעשה ונשמע, were very eager to accept the Torah by their own free will.  There is, though, a very puzzling statement in the well known Gemara in Shabbos (דף פ"ח.), which seems to imply that Bnai Yisrael did not accept the Torah eagerly and with their own free will.  As the Gemara writes, Hashem held the mountain (Har Sinai) over their heads and He said to them, "אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב, ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם," "If you accept the Torah - fine, and if not, there will be your burial.  How are we to reconcile these two apparently contradictory ideas?  Did Bnai Yisrael accept the Torah only because a negative answer would have been suicidal, or did they indeed achieve such a high level of Emunah in Hashem that they were ready to respond right away נעשה ונשמע, we will do and we will listen, right away?
    To explain this problem, some commentators point out a very interesting idea.  In analyzing the Gemara in Shabbos (שם), we find that the language used is "...and if not, there will be your burial."  The use of the word "there" seems strange.  Would it have not been more appropriate to say "here will be your burial?"
    Based on the use of the word "there," we can perhaps understand the seemingly contradictory ideas.  Bnai Yisrael themselves, in fact, did attain such a high level of Kedushah that they sincerely and eagerly exclaimed in unison "נעשה ונשמע."  However, regarding the commitment of their future descendants, they hesitated.  They felt that maybe only they themselves, who had experienced the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and Hashem's revelation to them at Har Sinai, could with certainty adhere to Hashem's words and have full belief in Him.  But their children, who did not witness all that they had, may perhaps be overcome by stronger temptations, and without the experiences and firm belief that the present Bnai Yisrael had in Hashem, they may not keep Hashem's Torah.  It was at this point, therefore, where Hashem coerced the Jewish people, standing at Har Sinai, to pledge that the future generations too would be devoted to Hashem and uphold his Torah.  This is then why the Gemara in Yoma (דף ע"ג:), in Nedarim (דף ח.), and in Shavuos (דף כ"א.) says that Bnai Yisrael for all times are obligated to keep the Torah based on what took place at that point at Har Sinai, because their ancestors indeed swore "נעשה ונשמע," which included all future generations as well.
    It is for this reason that the word "there" is used.  For Hashem was telling Bnai Yisrael that if the Jewish people throughout the millennia would ever neglect Hashem and his Torah, "there," at that point and time, they would meet their doom.  

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