Shabbat Yitro 5783

One of the most provocative teachings in all of rabbinic literature describes the conditions under which Israel received the Torah. The key word in that sentence is “under.”
In our Torah portion, Yitro, we read of the preparations for Revelation, for experiencing God and receiving commandments. Moshe positions the people, the Torah tells us, “at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). The Hebrew word describing their positioning is Betahtit ha-har, which prompts one sage, Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa, to notice that the word tahtit means “under.” Rabbi Avdimi asserts, famously: “This teaches that the Blessed Holy One overturned the mountain above them like a cask, and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, great; if not, there will be your grave'” (Bavli Shabbat 88a).
The many times I’ve encountered this passage, I’ve always assumed that this is a Divine death threat. The Talmud goes on to wonder how the covenant can be binding if Israel accepted it under duress, so the rabbis seem to have read it this way also. But this week, I read something that made me realize that “there will be your grave” is not explicitly a threat, but rather a prediction. What might it mean with that less threatening but still ominous inflection? When I introduce the Torah reading on Shabbat morning, I’ll explain more. I think you’ll find this new interpretation compelling, even if you don’t feel the compulsion!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise
Candle lighting: 5:05 PM
Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6