Rabbi Berkman’s Weekly Food For Thought

Rabbi Berkman is a rabbi for Mesorah DC and is the author of this new weekly feature.  Learn with him on Monday nights at Cafe Night at Sixth & I Synagogue.

Hello Jew gatherers and gathered Jews.  It is with great excitement that I launch this new blog. First and foremost, I would like to thank the Gather the Jews brain trust for allowing me this opportunity to connect and communicate with the young professional Jewish community of D.C. It is a great honor to be on the GTJ team. The idea of this blog is to bring Torah thought and conversation into our everyday lives. By just checking in with GTJ, you can find food for thought to help satiate you, mind and soul.  Here’s the plan: at the beginning of each week, I will post a question or thought-provoking idea. Take some time, think about it, and send in your thoughts and comments. Toward the end of the week, I will add my comments and try to round up our conversation.  I look forward to all of your input. Thanks for joining in.

Let’s get started!


In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God will give the Jewish the 10 commandments, making us his “chosen” people.  However before giving the commandments, God, through Moses, gives the Jews the choice of whether to become his prized nation or not. The nation answered as one: “all that God has spoken, we will do.”(19:8) Seemingly, a choice and commitment have been made.

Fast forward — well not too far — nine lines. The time has come and the Torah tells us that, as they prepared to hear God’s word, the Jewish people “stood at the bottom (under) of the mountain” (19:17).

The language used for the bottom of the mountain is “Tachtit” which, literally translated, means “under” the mountain. How do you stand under a mountain?

Our sages tell us that, in actuality, the people were standing underneath the mountain. God literally lifted the mountain over the heads of the Jewish people and told them “if you don’t accept this Torah, here will be your burial place.”

Knowing what we know now, did the Jews willingly accept the Torah, or was it forcefully thrust upon them? Was there any choice involved?

Chew on it and let me know what you think.

8 replies
  1. Tila
    Tila says:

    By putting the mountain over the heads of the Jewish people, God was giving them the opportunity to use their free will. By saying “Naaseh V’nishma,” they were ready to accept the Torah without even knowing what was inside. For any decision to be a true, free-will decision, the person’s ability to choose one alternative vs. another has to be evenly matched. When God put the mountain over their heads, it made it so the Jewish people were compelled to accept the Torah. I learned from a Rabbi that somewhere in the Gemara it says that a person naturally recoils from anything they are compelled to do. With the mountain over their heads with the threat of their burial place along with the “Naaseh V’nishma,” they were given an evenly-balanced free-will decision.
    So, my answer is Yes. There was a choice involved.

  2. Will G
    Will G says:

    Good question and great response, Tila!

    I remember once learning from a rabbi (I believe it was Rabbi Teitelbaum) that often, right before we are about to do something that’s big and life-changing even when we know it’s right, we get this irrational, paralyzing fear. I guess you could liken it to getting cold feet or the feeling some people get on their wedding day right before the ceremony.

    In this way I think that this irrational fear was obstructing the Jewish people’s free-will. By lifting the mountain over them, G-d was simply removing this obstacle so that the Jewish people would make the choice of accepting the ‘yoke’ of Torah and mitzvahs.

  3. Adam
    Adam says:

    If the choice is significant, we will value it even more. By holding the mountain over the heads of the Jews, he made the choice much more significant. He made their decision even more meaningful.

  4. Josh
    Josh says:

    I would prefer to have a choice between 2 or more things, than be forced by way of death. I don’t think death is an option.

  5. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Ok, read the Torah portion. Here once again we have a seeming contradiction in the Torah portion. But once again, in comes the oral law and the commentary — Deus ex machina style — to solve problem. Whoosh.

    I come from a literature background that firmly rejected the attempts of reconstuctionists to twist the classical novel into saying something that it really didn’t say. I was taught to cry, “there is nothing outside the text.” I’m now dabbling in the Constitutional law world, and my opinion is much the same — “there is nothing outside the text.”

    I think it is ridiculous — and incredible — how often we have to refer to the oral law and the commentary to fix the seeming contradictions of the Torah. If the Torah seems decidedly flawed — just say the nebulous oral law corrected the inaccuracy. If it still doesn’t make sense, then get some brilliant Torah scholar to put spin on it.

    Sorry. I think this is just one more piece of evidence of this albeit great document’s flaws.

    Fortunately, the difficult mental gymnastics we’ve put ourselves through to defend the Torah has sharpened many Jewish minds and has allowed us to come up with a much more exact religious and moral system and has translated to secular genius as well.

  6. Will
    Will says:

    The Torah is a document that is mostly full of laws. Laws that are simply impossible to understand – let alone put into practice – without an explanation. Yet an entire ancient society lived by these laws. Even if you don’t believe Torah a divine document it is still obvious that there had to have some kind of oral tradition in order to put it into practice or understand how to follow its directives. I’ve even heard American law has an oral component, but you can correct me if I’m wrong on that one. The point is no one can actually follow the laws of the Torah without an explanation of some sort and yet people did follow the Torah.

    I suggest listening to Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s 2 or 3 part lecture series on the oral law.

    Jewish tradition never claimed that all we got from G-d is the written Torah. We’d have no religion at all if that were the case. P


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