Following the divine protection of the Jewish people throughout their journey from Egypt, across the Red Sea, and travels in the desert of Sinai, G-d continually sustained our nation by providing miracles such as the heavenly manna that descended from the sky, resulting in a greater consciousness of G-d being our supreme leader. After the nation camped at the border of Mount Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to the heavens in order to accept the most prestigious gift of paramount significance that G-d had ever promised to give to Bnei Yisrael. The Torah, in which we as G-d’s nation have impacted and transformed the world with through its value system, created a relationship of commitment with G-d as His people, a unifying covenant that would allow us to survive as a nation for eternity.
When Moshe returned from Har Sinai, prior to receiving the Torah, he delivered a statement that G-d demanded he issue to Bnei Yisrael, which stated “… if you obey me and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a treasure out of all peoples, for mine is the entire earth… you shall be a holy nation” (Yitro 19:5-6). Unanimously, without even knowing the precepts, responsibilities, commandments, and obligations expected of them, Bnei Yisrael eagerly accepted the Torah and all its depths with the proclamation of “Na’aseh V’nishma” – “We will do and we will listen” (Mishpatim 24:7). This response declared their commitment to G-d’s sovereignty and were overjoyed in their anticipation of the Torah. This declaration seems to indicate that Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah willingly. The Gemara in Shabbat 88a, however, describes the exact opposite, inferring that Bnei Yisrael was actually forced to accept the Torah. Based off of the Pasuk that states “They stood at the lowermost part of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17), Rav Avdimi Bar Chama Bar Chasa interprets this to mean that Bnei Yisrael actually stood beneath the mountain, and “that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a huge vessel, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial’”. This implication seems to suggest that the Jews were coerced into accepting the Torah!
A possible paradox regarding the nature of Kabbalat Hatorah is now at hand: Did Bnei Yisrael willingly accept the Torah, or were they forced? Moreover, how could it be that after willingly accepting the Torah with the declaration of “Na’aseh V’nishma”, Bnei Yisrael was then threatened to accept it? Wasn’t this act by G-d seemingly unnecessary? Tosafot (ד״ה כפה עליהן הר כגיגית) attempts to resolve this difficulty and explains that even though Bnei Yisrael had already said “Na’aseh V’nishma”, perhaps they retracted their commitment to the Torah when witnessing the ‘great fire’ on the mountain, which may have caused their souls to depart. Thus, Hashem had to ‘force’ Bnei Yisrael, in a sense, to accept the Torah by holding Har Sinai above their heads, making sure they maintain their commitment. Rav Asher Weiss extends this answer, and explains the reasoning of why G-d resolved that merely saying “Na’aseh V’nishma” was not sufficient proof of Bnei Yisrael’s commitment to serve G-d until the end of time. He explains that Bnei Yisrael had just bear witness and experienced numerous astonishing, fearsome miracles done on their behalf, and thus were only committing themselves to G-d because of His divine providence which was constantly manifest in their time. G-d wanted to make sure that in the generations to come, where hardships and sufferings would abound and G-d’s providence would be hidden from their view, that Bnei Yisrael would still remain faithful and devoted to the obligations they undertook when accepting the Torah. It is not enough for Bnei Yisrael to observe the commandments when they feel loved and discard them when felt despised. Kabbalat Hatorah is incumbent upon us at all times, no matter what situation our nation is in. Thus, Hashem had to reaffirm our commitment to his Torah by placing Har Sinai over our heads, even after declaring “Na’aseh V’nishma”, in order to solidify our covenant with Him even more and to establish our everlasting engagement with the Torah.
One question, however, still remains. While standing at the foot of Har Sinai, at the place where all other religious thought would extend from this point of revelation, in a moment where a channel between this world and the world above is opened and the heavenly perspective of everything is being gifted to mankind, Bnei Yisrael was demanded by G-d, through Moshe, a bewildering command. This commandment was that Bnei Yisrael must stay behind the boundaries of Har Sinai, forbidding them from ascending the mountain to receive the Torah they yearned for immensely, as it states “…Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die” (Yitro 19:12). One can infer from this that if Bnei Yisrael had not been restricted from climbing Har Sinai, they would have readily climbed the mountain, despite the thunder, fire, and smoke in front of them, which emanated from G-d’s revelation. Doesn’t this demand seem counterintuitive? Bnei Yisrael would have willingly ascended the mountain to accept the Torah, despite all the suffering that it could have caused them along the way. This would be the exact commitment G-d was looking for in Bnei Yisrael, showing that they would do anything to be Mekabel the Torah! So, why did G-d command them to stay at the border of Har Sinai, preventing them from portraying their ultimate commitment to him, and what is the importance of it?
The Kedushat Levi answers this question and derives a fundamental lesson that is extremely important in the way we experience our Avodat Hashem. He prefaces with a separate question: Why is Shavuot also called “Atzeret”? He explains, that “Atzeret” literally means to “hold back”, which connotes to Bnei Yisrael being warned not to ascend the mountain, and responding by holding themselves back from doing that exact act. The essence of Shavuot, says the Berditchever, is the Mitzvah that Bnei Yisrael did at Har Sinai – “Hagbalah”, holding themselves back from passing the boundaries of Har Sinai. This, one would think, is the exact antithesis of what Shavuot is all about. When one generally thinks of Shavuot, he is always thinking of ways to get closer to the Torah, not holding himself back from it! However, the Mitzvah of ‘Hagbalah’ was not merely about Bnei Yisrael holding themselves back, and rather the act has a deeper, more profound meaning behind it. Shavuot is all about holding ourselves back from Kabbalat Hatorah so that we can appreciate Kabbalat Hatorah even more.
A general rule in life is that when one experiences a pleasure constantly, that constant pleasure loses its pleasurable nature. You may have that thing more quantitatively, but it will ultimately lose its quality as a consequence of having it all the time. When one allows for short term sacrifice in that pleasure, distancing themselves from whatever that pleasure may be, it will lead to a more long term gain. When we feel bereft of something, and angst for that thing abounds our minds, we will create an immense desire for it, and we will appreciate it much more once we have it. The same had to be done when accepting the Torah at Har Sinai. Once Bnei Yisrael would receive the Torah, the immense yearning they held for it throughout their entire journey would vanish. Hashem wanted to relate to Bnei Yisrael that they must experience the desire for Torah and hold themselves back a little longer, so that they can have a reminder of what it’s like to not have the Torah. The Torah, as we know, allows one to live the most pleasurable life, unveiling its depths and implicating its values and morals into our religious persona, while also impacting others with it as well. This is why the Torah is also referred to as a “Kli Chemda” – “A desirable vessel” (Pirkei Avot 3:14), as it is the matter in which the world was created through, and is thus the most precious thing we can spend our time in understanding more with. When we have the Torah, it is a constant pleasure gifted to us. But when one has a constant pleasure of Torah, the pleasure of Torah loses its quality. We must keep the Torah’s desirable nature intact. A person needs to experience not having this precious gift in order to uplift his experience of having it. When the thing that we long for is prevented from us, we will yearn for it more, allowing us to experience the utmost pleasure from it after getting it back afterwards. If we retract ourselves just a bit, we will be able to experience what it’s like to not have the Torah, and thus cause ourselves to want to delve into it even more. This is not to say that one should stop learning Torah in order to appreciate learning. It is the realization that without the Torah, we can no longer move forward, revealing to us how dependent we are on it. This will ultimately preserve its pleasurable nature, something that we must inculcate into our personal mindset. Once a person actually obtains something – they have it, but one must make sure the yearning for that thing is infinite. We must constantly feel agony without having the Torah, a sense of dread from being deprived of its beauty, in essence always keeping that burning desire for it at all times. Without the desire for it, we will ultimately lose out on its quality. With the desire for it, we will be able to learn with limitless passion and intensity.
We must experience in our times the desire for Torah that Bnei Yisrael had prior to Kabbalat Hatorah. By fathoming that which Bnei Yisrael felt prior to receiving the Torah, it will allow us to appreciate the gift that is readily available for us to learn at all times, B’Chasdei Hashem. This message can be understood through the words stated in the Kuzari, which says “Preparing oneself for the sensation of pleasure, while thinking about the contrasting lack of pleasure before the pleasure arrives, serves to heighten the pleasurable experience” (Letter 3:17). This was the message G-d wanted to make sure Bnei Yisrael internalized, that the desire for Torah must, in addition to our commitment to Torah, be incumbent upon us at all times, no matter what situation we are in. When preparing for Shavuot, we should be able to understand what it’s like to be parted from the Torah so that we will be able to have a more productive night of learning, Beezrat Hashem.