In the aftermath of the Jewish people’s battle against the non-Jewish population of Persia, the tale was recorded for posterity in Megillat Esther and a holiday was established by Mordechai and Esther, in order to commemorate the miracles which had occurred. In the description of the Jews’ acceptance of this holiday, the Pasuk states “Kiyemu VeKibbelu HaYehudim Aleihem Ve’Al Zaram Ve’Al Kol HaNilvim Aleihem VeLo Ya’avor”, “The Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them...” (Esther 9:27). This Pasuk, although seemingly only a reference to Purim, is taken by Chazal in a much broader light.
The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) interprets the words “VaYityatzevu BeTachtit HaHar”, “And [the Jewish people] stood at the lowermost part of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17), stated in the context of Matan Torah, to mean that Hashem lifted Har Sinai above the Jewish people and threatened to crush them with it if they refused to accept the Torah. Rav Acha Bar Yaakov posits that, as Bnei Yisrael were coerced to accept the Torah, it may not be completely binding. However, Rava cites the aforementioned Pasuk in Esther as evidence that the Jews in that time willingly accepted the Torah. This reading of the Pasuk is unchallenged in the Gemara, but it leaves a gaping question: are we really to believe that until the time of Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish people had never willingly and wholeheartedly affirmed their acceptance of the Torah? It seems puzzling that this didn’t happen in the times of Yehoshua, Shmuel, David, or any other time of spiritual uplift.
I would like to propose a simpler explanation. Assume for a moment that the Jews accepted the Torah completely willingly at Har Sinai. In the ensuing generations, the Jewish people experienced many hardships, not the least of which was Haman’s plan to wipe out the entire nation in one day. It is perfectly natural that in hard times, one’s faith might be shaken. However, after the Jews emerged from this traumatic ordeal victorious, they were reminded of the hand of Hashem, which was clearly orchestrating the entire story. Their miraculous salvation was enough to restore their faith in Hashem and inspire them to reaffirm their commitment to Torah observance.
A proof for this concept can be found in one of the stories about Eliyahu Hanavi. In Melachim Aleph Perek 17, Eliyahu encounters a poor widow and asks her for food. She responds that she does not have anything to spare for him, as she has only enough flour and oil for herself and her son to eat a final meal before their inevitable deaths from famine. Eliyahu performs a miracle and causes the flour and oil to last and sustain all three of them for an extended period. Some time later, the widow’s son dies and she immediately blames Eliyahu for causing his death. Eliyahu HaNavi cries out to Hashem and then revives the woman’s son. Upon seeing her son revived, the woman declares, “Atah Zeh Yadati Ki Ish Elokim Atah UDevar Hashem BeFicha Emet”, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD is truly in your mouth” (Melachim Aleph 17:24).
At first glance, this may seem surprising. The widow has already seen Eliyahu perform a great miracle which saved her life. Why is she only now accepting that he is a true Navi?
However, considering what had just transpired, the widow’s reaction is understandable. The widow’s son died, and she became angry with Eliyahu, and seemingly Hashem as well. Then, Eliyahu revived her dead son, thereby demonstrating his capabilities as a Navi yet again, as well as God’s beneficence. This served to restore the widow’s faith in Hashem, as well as in Eliyahu as an authentic Navi.
In times of extreme hardship, it is completely understandable for one to question beliefs they once took for granted. (It is for this reason that we cannot blame the many Holocaust survivors who abandoned their faith after their horrifying ordeal.) The Megillah seems to tell us that this happened to the Jews of Esther’s generation. However, they were able to reaffirm, and even strengthen their resolve after surviving near-extinction. (Again, we see a parallel when looking at the Holocaust survivors who did not give up on Judaism.) The Jewish people may have accepted the Torah hundreds of years earlier, but this generation had to reconnect after the terrifying ordeal which they were forced to endure, as have others throughout Jewish history.