Not too many psukim before the Ten Commandments, the Torah reports Bnei Yisrael's encamping at Har Sinai with the phrase ‘they stood under the mountain’ (‘betachtis hahar;’ 19:17). This requires explanation, and fortunately Rashi is on hand to do just that. As Rashi says, the explanation al pi pshat is that the pasuk means that Bnei Yisrael stood at the foot of the mountain. Rashi continues that Chazal reveal that the pasuk is alluding to something rather interesting that occurred just before Mattan Torah, as the gemarra[1] and Midrash[2] both explain. At some point before Mattan Torah, HaShem lifted up Har Sinai and, in the words of the gemarra ‘turned the mountain on top of them like a barrel and said to them [Bnei Yisrael] ‘if you accept the Torah then fine, but if not then your burial spot will be there.’’ In other words, HaShem lifted up Har Sinai over Bnei Yisrael's heads and threatened to drop it on them should they refuse to accept the Torah. Thus, Bnei Yisrael were stood under the mountain in the simplest sense of the word. And this is not just a parable/story; it really happened, as underlined by the fact that Rashi in parshas Ha'azinu[3] understands that this event is being referred to in the shirah handed to us by Moshe (more about that later). This event is referred to in Chazal by the phrase kafa aleyheim har gegigis, and this is what we are going to discuss this week.

After one has got over the initial shock of finding out that such an event actually took place before Mattan Torah, one can ask two central questions about this event. First is the question of Tosafos.[4] He asks why HaShem needed to force Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah at all; Bnei Yisrael had already said the famous words 'naaseh venishma,' and had thus voluntarily agreed to accept the Torah?[5] Perhaps even more central is the question of what exactly does it mean that HaShem turned over a mountain on top of us; what exactly was going on? Finally, one can ask a more ‘petty’ question on the phraseology of the above gemarra. The gemarra reports HaShem's threat as ‘if you accept the Torah, fine, but if not then your burial spot will be there.’ Now if we were all standing under a mountain which HaShem was to drop on top of us should we refuse to accept His Torah, why does the gemarra say ‘your burial spot will be there (sham);’ surely the gemarra should say ‘your burial spot will be here’ (under this mountain; kan)?

To understand this concept, we shall use an approach of Rabbi Dovid Kaplan. As mentioned above, Rashi refers to this mountain-turning event in shiras Ha'azinu. In the pasuk praising HaShem for having surrounded us and protected us in the desert, Rashi mentions three specific examples. HaShem surrounded us with the protective Clouds of Glory (which we celebrate on Sukkos[6]), the tribal flags which surrounded our encampments, and…the fact that HaShem surrounded us with the ‘uplifted’ Har Sinai just before Mattan Torah (kafa alyhem har gegigis). If this event of kafa aleyhem har kegigis is supposed to be ‘scary/forceful,’ why does Rashi add it in to the psukim referring to HaShem's kindness in surrounding and protecting us?[7]

Rabbi Kaplan brings together all these questions in offering an approach to this event. Really, HaShem lifting the mountain on top of us was not mainly to force us to accept the Torah. HaShem was enclosing and protecting us by putting a mountain around [and above] us, to set us aside from the other nations of the world. This was a visual demonstration of HaShem's promise to us twelve psukim earlier (19:5-6) that ‘you shall be to me a treasure of all the nations…a kingship of priests and a holy nation.’ This goes well with the Maharsha's explanation[8] that Bnei Yisrael were actually within the mountain, i.e. HaShem removed the earth from the mountain, hollowed it out, and surrounded Bnei Yisrael with it. Thus, the mountain was a surrounding protection for Bnei Yisrael, highlighting that HaShem has set us aside from other nations. In fact, perhaps this is hinted at by Rashi himself (19:17). When citing the mountain-lifting episode, Rashi adds the words ‘the mountain was uprooted from its place;’ the text in the gemarra does not have these words – they are from the Midrash. Perhaps the point is the same as the Maharsha; the mountain was uprooted from its place and as such the earth was removed from within it. Moreover, this explains the comparison between the mountain and a barrel. A barrel is hollow, echoing the fact that the mountain was put around the Bnei Yisrael as a sign of protection.

This approach also answers the question as to why HaShem said ‘your burial place will be there’ as opposed to here. HaShem was telling us that if we do not accept his Torah and take up our position as His special nation, then our burial place will be there; our burial place will be with the other nations of the world and not separate to them. Indeed, the gemarra[9] records one opinion that the mountain was really called Har Chorev, and the name Sinai is from the word sinah (hatred), because the other nations began hating Bnei Yisrael due to their chosen status at Har Sinai. Additionally, this approach also tackles Tosafos's question; why force a nation to accept the Torah when we had already accepted it gladly? The answer is that the kafa aleyhem har gegigis was not to force us to accept the Torah; it was to make us realise our special chosen status[10] In fact, this event of kafa aleyhem har gegigis is juxtaposed by the Midrash with HaShem being compared to a groom, and Bnei Yisral to His bride, and so complements the idea that it was an event born out of love, as opposed to being purely a means of forcing us to accept the Torah.

The idea is to realise that just like people have different roles in life, so too do nations play different roles in HaShem’s Programme. Our role is to commit to the Torah and try and fulfil HaShem’s unique expectations of us. Other nations have their roles too; they are to work on the physical perfection of the world. This is why a non-Jew may not keep Shabbos; because having an official day of rest with its pertinent laws completely negates their role of building the world physically. Bnei Yisrael, on the other hand, are the spiritual force in the world; their role is to teach the world about HaShem’s existence via commitment to His Torah. We do have a Shabbos, for this complements our role as the spiritual centre of the world. Indeed, our land, the Land of Israel is similarly the spiritual centre of the world, and it was from Yerushalayim (the Land's centre) that creation of the world began from.[11] We shall end with the words of the Sefer Hachinuch.[12] He is discussing the reason for the prohibition not to break bones of the korban pesach. He writes ‘…it is not honourable for sons of kings…to scrape the bones and to break them like dogs. It is not correct to do this; only the poor and hungry do this. Therefore, at the inception of our becoming the treasured nation, a kingship of priests and a holy people, at this [Pesach] time each year, it is appropriate for us to perform acts which show this great level we were elevated to at that point in time. And because our actions and thoughts [in performing this commandment], we will fix this concept in our conscience forever.’ The point is for us to realise our special status and to try and live up to our roles in life.

Have a great Shabbes!

[1] Gemarra Shabbos 88a [2] Midrash Yalkut, Yisro 283 [3] Rashi Devarim 32:10 'yesov'venhu' [4] Tosafos, gemarrra Shabbos 88a 'kafa' [5] Actually, the Midrash Tanchuma in parshas Noach answers this question, by revealing that thought Bnei Yisrael accepted the written Torah, HaShem had to force them to accept the Oral Law, which was also given on Har Sinai. [6] See gemarra Sukkah 11b [7] This question has several answers if one thinks hard enough; for example that forcing us to accept the Torah was a form of protection, for it was for our own good. Or that the list is not limited to events of 'surrounding' which are protective; the tribal flags were not necessarily protective in nature. But Rabbi Kaplan suggests an alternative answer. [8] Maharsha gemarra Shabbos 88a 'shekafa' [9] Gemarra Shabbos 89b [10] The only problem with this explanation is that it seems to contradict the explanation of Rashi in gemarra Shabbos itself. [11] Gemarra Yoma 54b. There is another opinion there that the world was created from the 'sides' first. [12] Sefer Hachincuh mitzvah 16

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