Shavuot: To Choose and To Be Chosen

“I don’t want to go to school,” says the child.  “But you have to,” says the parent.  “Why?” asks the child. “Trust me.  You’ll thank me when you’re older,” says the parent. Does that advice work when the child becomes an adult?  Can we simply tell an adult, “Try it.  It’s good for you, and you’ll thank me afterwards.”  I’m sure many Rabbanim have had success with this line with some congregants but not with others.  “Try this extra mitzvah, or this extra shiur.  It will be good for you.”  Some congregants respond enthusiastically to this line, while others naturally resist. Why do many of us resist?  I think that some of us simply don’t want anyone to tell us what to do.  We believe in the American value of freedom.  I can choose what I want to do and what I don’t want to do, and nobody else will dictate to me what to do and what not to do.

But I think that there is another reason.  We are promised happiness and greater meaning in our lives if we try the extra mitzvah or the extra shiur, and who doesn’t want happiness?  Who doesn’t want meaning?  And we try out the additional mitzvah or the additional shiur and it doesn’t provide us with that extra dose of happiness or meaning.  In other words, we don’t believe that it works.  And that is the challenge for so many of us – to envision a future of religious growth, of a deep-rooted feeling of connection to God resulting from our efforts.

Many of us are aware of the tension between whether the Torah was forced upon us or whether we accepted it willingly.  After all, our Sages pronounce conflicting statements in this regard.  On the one hand, the Gemara in Shabbat 88a asserts that God held a mountain over our heads and said that if we don’t accept the Torah then we will be buried there. On the other hand, the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah #3 asserts that God approached all the nations of the world and asked each one of them to accept the Torah and every nation except for the Bnei Yisrael refused to accept the Torah.  This tension raises the question of whether we were forced to accept the Torah like the Gemara or whether we accepted it willingly like the Midrash. There are numerous solutions to the problem, some which try to reinterpret the Talmudic passage and some which try to reinterpret the Midrashic passage.  For example, the Midrash Tanchuma asserts that we willingly accepted the written Torah but not the oral Torah and the Ramban writes that we willingly accepted the Torah in Israel but not outside Israel.

Rabbi Lamm, however, asserted that both the Gemara and the Midrash need not be reinterpreted.  God held a mountain over our heads and we exclaimed, “naaseh v’nishma.” We were chosen by God by force and we chose God willingly.  These two traditions of chosenness were on display when we accepted the Torah and these two traditions underscore the central meaning of the theology of chosenness. Chosenness has both obligations and privileges, difficulties and joys.  At birth, we inherit all the agonies of bearing God’s word to an unrepentant and unredeemed world, but if we choose God and experience kedusha, then we experience joy and delight because of our choice.  For the Jew who is only chosen, Jewishness is our fate.  For the Jew who also chooses, Jewishness is also our destiny.

All of us experience Judaism as the Gemara in Shabbat, as being chosen by God against our will.  For those of us who take a leap of faith and experience Judaism as the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah, then our Sinai experience will not crush us, but it will elevate us.  The proclamation of “naaseh v’nishma” means that we jump right in and accept the additional mitzvah and perform it with the belief that after enough “naaseh,” after enough religious experiences, we will engage in “nishma,” we will listen to ourselves, to our emotional and spiritual inner self, and we will notice that we are, indeed, a different person.  During the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, let us reenact the Sinai experience and commit to truly choose God not only out of force, but out of a deep “trust” in the Torah, that we can transform ourselves and become happier people and lead more meaningful lives.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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