#Shabbos88: “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”
Today’s Daf Yomi is a revelation. It presents a point of view that the holy covenant between God and the Jewish people, the grand act of giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was based on coercion. We are told that when Moses brought the Jewish people out of their camp to meet God a mountain rolled over them “like a tub” and God said, “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”
Our legal scholar, Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov, devised a legal argument that helps mitigate the perspective that we had no choice but to accept the Torah. He says that as a result Jews had no obligation to accept the Torah because they were coerced into doing so. He argued that such an agreement would not hold up in court. I imagine Moses standing as a witness in this court arguing that such coercion was necessary because these ungrateful people did not appreciate their gift and when he was working so hard up on Mt Sinai to accept the tablets, they were exuberantly dancing around a golden calf.
What is wonderful about this story and the comparison of the acceptance of the Torah with legal precedent is that the deal could be called off, the Jewish people could drag Moses into court and defend their case that the covenant was not legal. But that never happened. Over the generations, and we are told during the time of Esther 1,000 years after Moses, Torah was accepted as the promise of the Jewish people. And so, it wasn’t an act of coercion after all. And as powerful and almighty as God is, he still required the willful acceptance of his people for the Torah to survive as their birthright over the generations.
We are told that when the people indicated that they would accept the covenant “600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people.” But when they became impatient while Moses was up on the mountain fulfilling his and their destiny, they felt abandoned, looked for leadership elsewhere and were misled to believe they could find fulfilment with the golden calf. We are told as result, “1,200,000 angels of destruction descended and removed them [the crowns] from the people.” In essence, they lost their holy ornaments as a result of their lack of faith.
What is our golden calf of today and what ornaments do we stand to lose? Cornel West, during a CNN interview, called America a “failed social experiment” following the horrific death of George Floyd. He elaborated that our culture is “market-driven” with “everything for sale” and as a culture we have been unable to deliver the protection of not just civil rights and liberties but also any “real nourishment for the soul.”
Have we over the last decades turned to golden calves of one form or another for meaning? Are our golden calves of today a certain leader who is oddly “golden-ish” in hue and the luxury brands that have been looted in New York City over the past few days? Do we have a chance right now, with our society mostly shut down from COVID-19 and our cities aflame from social injustice and much of the world we have known stripped away, to do the right thing and turn away from the golden calves that misled us down the false path and finally uphold our core values of liberty and equality for all?