Rav Shimshon Pincus, in an essay on Shavuot, asks a fundamental question concerning one of the famous Midrashim connected to Shavuot.
Many of us are familiar with the well-known Midrash that relays how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world. Each nation inquired as to the content of the Torah, and, in each case, Hashem responded by outlining a prohibition from the Torah that would be particularly challenging for that nation to keep. As a result, each nation rejected the offer outright. Ultimately, only Bnei Yisrael agreed to accept the Torah wholeheartedly, without condition.
Rav Pincus raises an obvious question concerning this entire episode. At first glance, Hashem seems to act unfairly towards the other nations. When each nation asks about the contents of the Torah, Hashem davka tells them about the one prohibition that He knows they will have trouble accepting. But the Torah contains within it so many more commandments- many of them beautiful and inspiring. Why doesn’t G-d begin his description of the Torah with its more inspiring content; garner excitement for the Torah from these nations; and only later mention the prohibition that will be difficult for them to keep? If He truly desired that the other nations accept the Torah, wouldn’t this alternate strategy have made more sense? It seems as if G-d does not want the nations of the world to the accept the Torah, and He therefore makes sure to highlight the areas that they will find challenging?
Rav Pincus answers that Hashem was trying to teach the other nations- and us as well- a crucially important lesson regarding Torah and its impact on our lives. G-d stressed to each nation, from day one, that Kabbalat haTorah, acceptance of the Torah, means allowing Torah to define who you are as people- even if that means changing your worldview and your natural inclinations.
Accepting the Torah does not mean acceding to only the things that we like- and agreeing to live a life of Torah as long as it doesn’t interfere with our lives. Accepting Torah means accepting it fully, even if and when it goes against our natural wants and desires. From the very moment that He offered each nation the Torah- G-d wanted to make it clear that this is what Kabbalat Torah is all about. When each nation asked what was included in the Torah, therefore, Hashem specifically mentioned the one element that He knew would be the hardest for them to keep- to highlight that this is the essence of living a life of Torah, of making a commitment to keep the Torah.
And when Bnei Yisrael responded with “naase v’nishma”- going against all logic by accepting the Torah without knowing the full contents of it- the Jewish nation showed their willingness to follow G-d’s lead and sacrifice their own desires/wants in order to live a life of Torah. They understood that accepting the Torah doesn’t mean accepting and doing only the things that are enjoyable – it means accepting and doing even the things that are hard to do, even the commandments that go against against our nature, because they are what Hashem has commanded us to do.
Rav Soloveitchik, in a number of places, writes about the important role that submission plays in Judaism- how each person must submit our wants and needs to a higher authority, thereby committing an act of “tzimtzum”, a “withdrawing” of ourselves and our natural desires, for the sake of G-d and in deference to Him. In this way, we actually imitate G-d himself, who also did an act of “tzimtzum”, of “withdrawal”, in order to create space for mankind in this world.
In his famous essay entitled Catharsis, The Rav posits that heroism means living a life of submission to Halacha- accepting upon ourselves a higher authority and being submissive to it, even if it means going against our desires and wants. A true hero, suggests Rav Soloveitchik, is one who submits to this higher authority even when no one else is watching, even in the privacy of his own home. In such a situation, no one is forcing him. He is submitting simply out of a deep commitment to, and relationship with, Hashem.
We currently live in a society that places a premium on personal choice. The ability to choose, in all areas of life, is considered an essential and basic human right. In such a world, it is extremely challenging to connect to the concept of submission to a higher authority. Such a concept goes against the entire ethos of the culture around us. It is therefore particularly crucial that we not only continue to cultivate obedience to HaShem’s will within ourselves, but within our children as well. From a young age, we must instill within our kids the knowledge that there is a higher Being to whom we submit ourselves and our lives- and the importance of being able to do so.
Of course, this does not mean that our relationship with Hashem is simply one of submission and obedience. Our connection with Hashem is so much greater and deeper than that- it is also a relationship of deep love and dedication. But at its core, the point of departure for our relationship with Hashem is that of deference to His authority- from there, everything else flows
As we celebrate our acceptance of the Torah this year, we should remember the message of this important Midrash. As G-d offered the Torah to all the nations, He highlighted for them the fact that living a life of Torah does not mean living a life of convenience. It means living a life of dedication and commitment to a Higher authority. In accepting the Torah without question, our ancestors embarked upon this journey of commitment and devotion to G-d. Each year, on Shavuot, we re-commit ourselves to that devotion.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!!