On Shavuot we specifically celebrate Ma'amad Har Sinai, and the beautiful, awesome power that the Torah describes as the Jewish people received the Torah. Chazal describe the Revelation as a kind of wedding between God and the Jewish people, establishing an eternal bond between us that can never be severed.
Yet, a famous Gemara (Shabbat 88a) relates that, at least according to one opinion, getting us to the Chuppah required some serious arm-twisting.
According to the Gemara, despite the wonderful declaration of נעשה ונשמע, the Jewish people weren't altogether ready to fully accept the requirements of the Torah. So God made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Literally. "Take My Torah," He told us, "Or that will be the last decision you ever make."ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר: א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם"And they sat at the bottom of the mountain" (Shemot 19) Said Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa: This teaches us that the Holy One held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, good! And if not, there will be your grave.'
According to Rashi's interpretation of the Gemara, this troubling statement leads the Gemara to raise a critical question.
What is the criticism against the Torah? Rashi explains that should God bring a claim against the Jewish for failing to follow the Torah [and ask them], "Why did you not fulfill the Torah that you accepted upon yourselves?" they could reply that they only accepted the Torah out of coercion. It's a powerful question. How can we be held responsible for not keeping a Torah that we never willingly accepted? And, because God coerced us with the threat of death to accept the Torah, why should we endure terrible punishment for failure to keep an agreement that we never really wanted?א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתאSaid Rav Ada bar Yaakov: from this verse we see a great criticism against the Torah.
The Gemara never offers a satisfying answer to this question. Yet, Rava seems to respond to the question by implying that in the end we did accept the Torah willingly.
Yet, this enigmatic, troubling section raises more questions than it answers. If we never really willingly accepted the Torah until the era of the Purim story, why were the Jewish people punished and expelled from the Land of Israel during the First Temple Period? After all, they had not yet willingly accepted upon themselves the covenant with God. How then could God fairly hold them accountable for failing to adhere to an agreement they never really wanted?אמר רבא אעפ"כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כברSaid Rava: Nonetheless, they still [willingly] accepted [the Torah] in the times of Achashverosh, as it is written, "They fulfilled and accepted" – [meaning that] they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.
Rav A.Y. HaKohen Kook zt"l, in his Ein Ayah commentary, offers a different interpretation of this passage in the Gemara, based upon his understanding of the crucial nature of coercion in Torah education. He writes,
Free will is a specific form of content through which a person improves his ethical stamina. For this reason, he has specific control over its parameters and scope. But free will itself is part of the essential character of a human being – about which it is not relevant to describe as a freedom. We are not free to want or not to want. Free will is the essence of life itself, and life is given to us without our choice. We control the bending of our will to one of two directions, to the right or left. There we find the hand of choice.Rav Kook's language can sometimes be confusing, so I'll explain.
If the Torah was simply the expression of the ethical content of humanity, it would have been worthwhile to have been given with complete free choice. But in truth, the Torah is the expression of the unique individuality of man, as he is. Violation of the Torah is an estrangement of a person – an estrangement from himself…for this reason, it was appropriate that the Torah should be revealed in this matter an essential, fundamental revelation…
God gives us freedom to make choices in order to allow us to improve upon ourselves. Yet, some aspects of our existence were never given to free will. God never asked us whether we want to breathe or not. We do – without choosing to, without free will. God never asked us whether we want free choice. It's essential to being a human being. Once we have free choice, then we must use that freedom to choose wisely and appropriately.
The same rule applies to the acceptance of the Torah.
According to Rav Kook's philosophy, the Torah isn't a force or power external to us that we must internalize, study and accept. Rather, the Torah represents the essential, inner spiritual nature of the Jewish people. We are the Torah, and it is us. For this reason, it wouldn't make any sense for us to have the freedom to choose whether to accept the Torah or not, because that would be akin to choosing whether or not we wished to exist or not.
That, explains Rav Kook, is exactly what the Gemara teaches us. According to his understanding, Rav Acha bar Yaakov isn't asking a question, but making a critical assertion:
At Sinai, when God figuratively held the mountain over our heads and forced us to accept the Torah, He was telling us that the Torah was essential to our very being. Without the Torah we would cease to exist! The greatest proof of this fact is that God didn't ask us whether we want it. Rather, He forced us to accept it without free will, because you cannot accept something that's already essential to your very existence.א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא!Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov, from here we see a great proof to the Torah!
To me, Rav Kook's powerful passage carries another important message as well. Coercion isn't wrong or inappropriate. Rather, it's an essential element of the transmission of Torah.
Look at it this way: Do we ask our children whether they want to go to school, or recite Shema at night or go to shul? We don't, nor should we. We coerce our children in order to internalize certain critical behaviors in their lives. We want the Torah to be an essential part of them.
Hopefully, at some point in their lives, these behaviors will become so essential to their identities that they'll continue to adhere to them after we no longer force to do so. But it starts with coercion –as well it should.
Should I force my children to follow the truth of God's Torah, and make it an essential part of them? To this question, my answer is an unequivocal "Yes."
After all, that's how we got the Torah in the first place.