By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
In Parashas Re’eh we saw that K’lal Yisrael were given the following instruction:
And when Hashem Elokecha brings you to the land that you are heading towards to inherit it, you must place the blessing upon Mount Grizim and the curse upon Mount Eival (Devarim 11:29).
In other words, half the tribes were to stand upon one mountain and the other half upon the other, while the Levi’im and the Aron HaBris—the Ark of the Covenant—remained in the valley between them. First the Levi’im would turn towards Mount Grizim and proclaim one of the blessings, and the people would respond, “Amen!” Then they would turn towards Mount Eival and proclaim the corresponding curse, and the people would respond, “Amen!” (Rashi, Devarim 27:12).
In our parashah, Parashas Ki Savo, we are told the specific blessings and curses that were to be proclaimed, culminating with ones encompassing all the mitzvos of the Torah:
Cursed is the one who does not uphold the words of this Torah to perform them, and the people shall say, “Amen” (Devarim 27:26).
Rashi tells us the significance of this curse: “‘Who does not uphold.’ Here the entire Torah was included in a single principle, which they accepted upon themselves with a curse and an oath.”
It turns out, then, that in that gathering upon the mountains, the people accepted upon themselves the entire Torah, just as they had done at Sinai when they proclaimed, “Kol asher diber Hashem, na’aseh v’nishma!”—“Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will listen!” (Sh’mos 24:7). This makes a passage in Masechta Shabbos (88a) seem very puzzling.
There we are told that because the Torah was originally received under a state of compulsion—as indicated in the pasuk, “And they stood beneath the mountain” (19:17), which teaches that Hashem held the mountain over them like a barrel and warned them to accept the Torah upon pain of death—therefore subsequent generations could always excuse themselves on the grounds that they only agreed under duress. The Gemara calls this a moda’a rabbah leOraisa—a great peremptory protest against the Torah.
This situation was only rectified, explains the Gemara, in the time of Achashveirosh, when the people reaffirmed their acceptance willingly, as indicated in the verse, “Kiymu v’kiblu HaYehudim aleihem”—“The Jews upheld and accepted upon themselves” (Esther 9:27), which Chazal take to mean that they “upheld” what they had already “accepted” earlier, meaning the entire Torah.
The meforshim, including Tosafos on the daf in Shabbos, note one difficulty with this Gemara—namely that K’lal Yisrael had already accepted to keep the Torah before the mountain was held over them, at the time they proclaimed, Na’aseh v’nishma! Many answers are given to this question and many explanations are given of the exact nature of the “compulsion” to which they were subjected—the mountain “held over them like a barrel.” But no matter how the Gemara is to be understood, the pasuk in Ki Savo raises the question all over again—If K’lal Yisrael accepted the entire Torah without compulsion in the covenant upon the mountains when they first entered Eretz Yisrael, why was it necessary for them to do so again in the time of Achashveirosh?
I once presented all my problems with this Gemara to my rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, who responded that they are all resolved by an explanation he once gave independently of my question from Parashas Ki Savo. He said of his explanation: Ich hob gezocht bederech drush, eiyb es iz oychet emes—“I said it in the way of drush, but it’s also emes.”
The “compulsion” of Ma’amad Har Sinai was the special relationship K’lal Yisrael enjoyed with Hashem at that time. All the while that K’lal Yisrael were in the desert, they lived on manna from Heaven and were surrounded by Clouds of Glory, which protected them from all harm as well as from the elements. They received their water from a miraculous well that traveled with them wherever they went and their children’s clothing expanded with them as they grew up. Every aspect of their lives was miraculous.
To a lesser degree, the open miracles continued on into the times of the first Beis HaMikdash. For example, throughout this period they continued to enjoy the phenomenon of true prophecy in their midst. It was under such conditions that they accepted the Torah at Sinai and renewed the covenant upon entering the land. But once they lost that feeling of special closeness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and were cast into the darkness of galus—in other words, once their relationship with Hashem became characterized by hester panim, hidden Providence—they could claim with some justification, “We never accepted the Torah under such conditions as these!”
One of the Kinos we recite on Tishah B’Av (Nusach Ashkenaz, Kinah 31) compares at length the situation of K’lal Yisrael upon coming out of Egypt with their situation upon going into exile—“The image of the glory of Hashem, like a consuming fire going before me, when I went out of Mitzrayim; but a sharpened sword, abandoned to slaughter, when I went out of Yerushalayim!” What a difference!
This is what the Gemara means when it says that for such appallingly changed circumstances there had been no Kabbalas HaTorah. Nevertheless, after the miracle of Purim, which took place in galus under conditions of hester panim, K’lal Yisrael then went back and affirmed that they accepted the Torah even under such circumstances. This is the meaning of the statement, Kiymu v’kiblu—that they upheld under conditions of hester panim what they had already accepted under conditions of gilui panim, open Providence.
Since the covenant upon Mount Grizim and Mount Eival was also made under conditions of gilui panim, my question is answered as well. Until the reaffirmation in the time of Achashveirosh, one could have argued that that covenant did not obligate them under conditions of galus. Only after the hidden miracle of Purim, through which they learned to see the hand of Providence even in times of hester, did their acceptance become “unconditional.”
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. Now in print:
Machat shel Yad Vayikra.