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    Were the 10 Commandments forced on us? – Shavu’ot

    On Shavu’ot we celebrate the Ten Commandments. It is the most famous document in the history of our civilisation. It is found above the Ark in the synagogue; it is honoured in other religions.

    But wait. Did anyone ask whether we wanted these commandments? Had we, or rather our ancestors, been consulted, we might have said we preferred freedom without constraints.

    A Midrashic answer is, “Perhaps you say, ‘For your harm have I given you the Torah’; I gave it to you only for your benefit” (Deut. R. 8:2). But another rabbinic statement makes the whole issue very problematical. Commenting on Ex. 19:17, the sages say that God upended the mountain over them like a cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, all will be well, but if not, here will be your burial-place” (Shabbat 88a).

    So God was, as it were, pointing a pistol at our heads!

    Maimonides hints at an answer. The law is that if a husband is hesitant about a gett, the court can punish him until he says, “I agree” (Gerushin 2:20). But Maimonides says this is not duress; the beating restores him to his real law-abiding self: as Isidore Epstein explains, “The doing of good corresponds to the Jew’s real nature”.

    So at Sinai God was being dramatic to ensure nothing stopped Israel instinctively agreeing to accept the Torah.

    They soon realised what a pearl they had acquired. Twice thereafter they are asked if they want the Torah, and they answer, “We will do it and obey it” (Ex. 24:7). So the Jewish heart knew what it was doing in accepting the commandments; and thus began the Jewish contribution to civilisation.

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