A well-known yeshiva high school discovered one of their students might not be Jewish. The parents had raised the child as a Torah-observant Jew, but the lineage of the mother was in question. The yeshiva looked into the matter and confirmed that the mother’s mother was not legitimately Jewish. As such, their Torah-observant student was not Jewish either!
The rosh yeshiva called the 16-year-old young man into his office. After a few minutes, the rosh yeshiva said, “I’m about to tell you something that will change your whole life. You need to think long and hard about what I’m going to tell you. Ultimately, it will be your decision what to do. As shocking as it sounds, we have discovered, with certainty, that your mother…is not really Jewish. That means that you, also, are not Jewish! You can take off your yarmulke and tzitzis with a clear conscience. You don’t have to come to davening tonight or tomorrow. You certainly can’t put on tefillin in the morning. Although you were raised “Jewish,” you’re not. You can leave yeshiva, go to public school, buy a sandwich at McDonalds, and marry a non-Jewish girl.”
The rosh yeshiva continued: “Or, you can decide you want to be Jewish and go through a conversion process, which will be easier for you as you know many of the halachos. But you need to think about this. Let me know in a reasonable amount of time what you want to do.”
Imagine you were that young man; what would your decision be?
I experienced a similar story but in reverse, with a person who came to our yeshiva saying he was Jewish, but something seemed questionable. After investigating, we determined he was not Jewish. He was feeding off the kindness of others, with free lodging in the neighborhood and lots of invitations for meals. When I confronted him, he took off his yarmulke and threw it to the floor, then yanked off his tzitzis and slammed them on the table and stormed out of the building. He never came back.
This story is central to understanding the receiving of the Torah in this week’s parsha of Yisro. As the Jewish people stood at the base of Har Sinai, the Gemara Shabbos (88a) comments on the pasuk “….vayisyatzvu b’tachtis hahar,” the Jews stood underneath the mountain. Rav Dimi bar Chasa says Hashem literally placed the Jews under the mountain, picking up Har Sinai, holding it over their heads and saying they could accept the Torah and be His people, or refuse and have the mountain dropped on their heads.
All the commentators have a field day with this. The Bnei Yisrael had already expressed their acceptance of the Torah by saying “na’aseh v’nishmah (we will observe and we will listen).” Why this show of force? The question is compounded by the Chazal that says Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations before He offered it to the Jews. They all refused. The last nation Hashem approached was klal Yisrael, who accepted without question. Everyone had their chance. The Jewish nation said yes. So why hold the mountain over their head?
Rav Gedalia Schor gives a fundamental explanation based on the Maharal. The Maharal says it was to teach us a crucial lesson. We must accept the Torah because if not, the world will cease to exist! As Rashi in Parshas Bereishis says, the world stood in limbo until Har Sinai. If klal Yisrael would not accept the Torah, the world would implode. So, although you may choose to accept, you really don’t have a choice; acceptance is imperative.
When Hashem held the mountain over our heads, it seemed like force. In truth, it was a reality statement. The Jewish people wanted the Torah. How so? The Rambam explains that a person can be forced to do a mitzvah, yet it’s not considered coercion because deep down a Jew always wants to do the will of Hashem.
Although I know many people who made the choice to be Jewish, those who were born Jewish don’t have a choice. Sometimes we can think or feel that we are restricted and not free to do as we please. However, the lesson Hashem was teaching us by holding the mountain over our heads was that although you are forced, you are only being forced to do what you really want to do. How do we know? You said na’aseh v’nishma.
Let us wake up each day and be in touch with our true selves, dedicating ourselves to do the will of Hashem as we did at Har Sinai, with complete faith.