Thursday, January 24, 2019

Mountains of Obligation, Mountains of Meaning

There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. With no one else, God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that accepting the Torah was a choice. We freely chose the Torah and affirmed its obligations.

Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In this midrash, God holds Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of God. Here God is portrayed as coercive and threatening.

Often, when I share these interpretations, people gravitate towards the first rabbinic legend. Few even find fault with the negative descriptions of the other nations. People want to see their Torah as freely chosen, as our faith and the Jewish commitments that derive from them as brimming with freedom and choice. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” And we then observe. And we thereby discover meaning.

But lately I have been thinking that we are not as free as we think.

Ask anyone what gives their life the greatest meaning. Will they say, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want; I can go to the gym at 11 pm; I can go out to dinner with friends on any evening of the week.”? I doubt such will be their answers. Instead people will say, “My children. My family. My charity work.” More often than not it is those things which involve others that add meaning to our lives. It is that which involves obligation. It is our commitment to others that grants life its greatest meaning.

Are we really free? Are our choices made with complete disregard for those we love, for those we obligate ourselves towards? Is a life of meaning built around choice or obligation?

Then again, who would want to choose something with a mountain hanging over their heads? The choice is coerced. It is tainted.

Is it truly? Can our choices be entirely free? Is the freedom to choose an illusion? Can we really make choices that are devoid of outside influences? Can we disregard family? Friends? Should we cast aside obligation? Perhaps the rabbinic legend is correct.

With every choice there is indeed a mountain suspended over our heads. At times we disregard it and pretend heaviness does not exist. Lately I have come to believe that is better to affirm its pull and allow meaning to be gained by the weight of its obligation and commitment.

The mountain may indeed be frightening and at times even feel coercive, but it can also be meaningful.

The weight of obligation provides life’s greatest meaning.

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