He Overturned the Mountain upon Them

  • Harav Yehuda Amital










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He Overturned the Mountain upon Them


Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l

Translated by David Strauss



“And they stood under the mount” (Shemot 19:17). Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial. (Shabbat 88a)


      The Tosafot raised an objection from the fact that the people of Israel had already said: “We shall do and we shall obey” (Shemot 24:7). Why, then, was it necessary to hold the mountain over them? The Tosafot answer that there was a danger that Israel, when they saw the great fire at Mount Sinai, would renege on their promise to keep the Torah. Therefore, it was necessary to prevent them from backtracking by overturning the mountain upon them like an inverted cask.


      The words of Tosafot contain a very profound insight.  At each moment, every individual is in a specific situation, subject to the limitations of place and time, affected by his environment and other external conditions, from whose influence he can never totally free himself. This being the case, we must ask ourselves: Can an individual make decisions at a particular time that will still be binding under changed circumstances? Is he capable of accepting upon himself to behave in a certain manner even under totally different conditions?


      Thus there was a certain problem when the people of Israel accepted the Torah, saying, “We shall do and we shall obey,” for it would be very difficult to keep this promise in all the changed circumstances under which Israel would live.


      The solution to this problem lies, of course, in the hands of God, Creator of the universe. God “overturned the mountain upon them like an inverted cask” – He adjusted the world so that it should accord with the Torah, and in that way He ensured that all situations, times and places would be suited for Torah observance. Through this act of overturning the mountain like an inverted cask, which symbolizes the fashioning of reality in light of Torah observance, Israel’s statement, “We shall do and we shall obey,” received absolute force. Now this statement was not merely a fleeting declaration, but a proclamation with eternal significance, for from this point on, the world would be suited continually for fulfilling the Torah. It was only by virtue of the inversion of the mountain that the Torah has survived from the time of the creation of the world and will continue to survive for all generations.


            This is the deeper meaning of Tosafot’s statement that the mountain was inverted in order that the people of Israel should not be alarmed by the fire and retract their promise. Had God not inverted the mountain upon them, the people of Israel’s acceptance of “We shall do and we shall obey” could have been a quickly passing utterance, and certain occurrences, e.g., seeing the fire, could have brought about its annulment. The primary role of the assembly at Mount Sinai was to establish the Torah’s standing for all generations. It was by virtue of the assembly at Mount Sinai that the Torah received eternal and binding force.