Yitro: The pedagogic value of coercion

This week’s parsha contains the epic narrative of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Interestingly, the Torah describes the position of the children of Israel with the words, “And they stood under the mountain” (Ex. 19:17). The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 88a) interprets these words most literally:

 R. Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘if you accept the Torah all is well, but if not, then there will be your grave.’  R. Aha bar Yaakov noted, ‘This furnishes a strong protest against [observance of] the Torah.’  Raba said, ‘Be that as it may, they accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written, “the Jews observed and accepted” (Es. 9:27) – they observed what they had already accepted.

One of the most fundamental values of the human condition is that of free will. Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva 5:4) explains that reward and punishment are predicated on Man’s ability to exercise free will and thus to be held accountable for his actions. In contradistinction, coercion is decried as negating the value of free will. It is thus with great consternation that we read in the Talmud that God forced the Jews to accept the Torah.

Further enshrouding this enigma of coercion is the fact that the Jews are so wholly praised by the same Talmud for accepting the Torah with the famous expression of unreserved selfless acceptance – naaseh v’nishmah – “we will do and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7). If the Jews had already accepted the Torah of their own volition, what is the meaning of forcing them to accept it? And if they were forced to accept the Torah, “this furnishes a strong protest against the Torah,” meaning that the Jews could not be held accountable to its demands until they willingly accepted it in “the days of Ahashverosh.” If so, under what pretext were the Jews punished with exile to Babylonia?  And finally, what was so significant “in the days of Ahashverosh” that only then did acceptance of the Torah take place?

The answer to these questions, I propose, lies in viewing the nation of Israel as an individual going through the emotional developmental stages to maturation. The Midrash Tanhuma (Vethanan 826) refers to the Jews in Egypt as “a fetus in the womb” that God delivered. They were “born,” as it were, upon their exodus from Egypt, passing through the “birth canal” of the Red Sea. As such, the Jews in the desert can be likened to children in respect to their relationship with God and His Torah. They were “spoon-fed” like babies by their Father in heaven through His daily ration of manna. At any difficulty they experienced they simply cried and were immediately answered.

When children are developing, they need definitions of appropriate behavior, boundaries of acceptable action, education of right and wrong; in short, a system of morality. If children are allowed to choose of their own free will, they will choose self-gratification, they will choose based on what “looks good, feels good, tastes good.”  Only when one has gained an appreciation of oneself and the surrounding world – something referred to as “maturity” – can one begin, of one’s own free will, to accept things that are not associated with self-gratification.

This point was made most tangibly to me when I was recently listening to a psychology talk-show on the radio. A distraught mother was bemoaning the state of her three sons: the oldest was in jail, the second was on drugs and the youngest was dropping out of high school. Over the course of their conversation, the woman revealed that, although both she and her husband were well-educated, moral, upstanding citizens, they had made an agreement not to impose their morals and beliefs on their children, instead allowing them to exercise their own freedom of choice.

Jewish law and lore appreciate that the development of man occurs in stages. Jewish lore explains that until the age of maturity, a person has only a yetzer hara, a selfish will. Only upon reaching the age of maturity does one acquire a yetzer hatov, a selfless will. Jewish law expresses this idea by exempting minors of culpability for any violation of the Torah. Nevertheless, both parent and teacher do demand absolute obedience to their authority, and it is to this one violation that the child can and must be disciplined.  Failing to do so is tantamount to abandoning the child, as King Solomon wrote, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him corrects him” (Proverbs 13:24).

So just as children have to be forced to accept a system of morality, so too did the Jews have to be forced to accept the Torah. And like a child who naturally accepts the authority of his parents, so too did the Jews accept God’s authority – through their altruistic declaration: naaseh v’nishmah. And like a minor who, though he cannot be held “legally” accountable for his violations, is nevertheless accountable for obedience to his parents; so too the Jews, though not punishable for violation of all the various demands of the Torah, were nevertheless liable to punishment for infidelity – otherwise known as idol worship.

Upon reaching maturity, one becomes responsible for one’s actions, which are then punishable in a court of law. The Jews reached such maturity “in the days of Ahashverosh.” Why? The “days of Ahashverosh” are those recorded in the book of Esther, the only book of the Bible in which the name of God does not appear. Until that time, the Jews always had God’s immediate presence and revealed response available to them. In the days of Ahashverosh, the Jews had no recourse to supernatural exchanges; consequently, they had to assume responsibility for themselves. They had matured to the point where they would now have to solve their problems through their own resources.

This does not mean that they did not rely on God for behind-the-scenes support, but it does mean that they realized they would have to do everything humanly possible to solve their dilemma, to save their existence. It was this combination of human effort, coupled with faith in divine support, that is the message of the book of Esther. When the Jews took action within the political realm and at the same time fasted and prayed, they acted like mature adults and actively accepted God’s system of Torah and mitzvot. And though this took place during a time of crisis, after the dust settled from their miraculous victory, they formally accepted the Torah without fearing for their lives.

In conclusion, though free will is a fundamental principle of our existence, its proper expression can only be achieved through mature development. To permit the free exercise of a child’s will without proper inculcation of moral values – through coercion – will result in wayward youth and corrupt adults. And just as it is essential for the individual to follow the developmental stages of: (a) acceptance of authority, (b) education through a compulsory system of values, and (c) voluntary acceptance, so too was this true for the nation of Israel.


About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at http://www.divreinavon.com
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