We read in Parashat Beha’alotekha the unfortunate story of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, where Benei Yisrael complained to Moshe about the conditions in the travel, expressing their dissatisfaction with the manna, and their desire for meat and vegetables. God was angry at the people for their complaints, and many of them were killed.
While the simple reading of the text indicates that the people complained about food, the Gemara (Yoma 75a), cited by Rashi (11:10), states that the people also complained about the laws of arayot, which forbid marriage and intimate relations between family members and certain relatives.
Leaving aside the broader question as to the connection between arayot and the people’s complaint about the lack of variety of food in the desert, a number of writers addressed the technical question as to whether the arayot prohibitions indeed applied at that time as a practical matter. The event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, when God revealed Himself to Benei Yisrael and they entered into a formal covenant with Him, is seen as the model of geirut (conversion), and the procedure of a gentile’s conversion is modeled after Ma’amad Har Sinai. The Gemara in Masekhet Keritut (9a) teaches: “Just as your forefathers entered into the covenant through circumcision, immersion and the sprinkling of [sacrificial] blood, similarly, they [converts] shall enter into the covenant through circumcision, immersion and the sprinkling of [sacrificial] blood.” One of the rules that apply to a convert is “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” – a convert is halakhically considered “reborn” at the time of his conversion, such that he is no longer halakhically related to his biological relatives (Yevamot 22a). On the level of Torah law, then, a convert is allowed to marry any family member. Chazal later enacted that this should not be done, but before this enactment, such marriages were allowed. Seemingly, then, Benei Yisrael, who underwent “conversion” at the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai, were permitted to marry their family members. The question thus becomes why they protested the laws of arayot, which were not relevant to them as a practical matter.
The Maharal of Prague, in his Gur Aryeh, answered that the geirut which Benei Yisrael underwent at the time of Matan Torah differed from standard geirut, in that it was compulsory. Whereas a convert chooses on his own to join Am Yisrael and enter into the covenant with God, Benei Yisrael were not given any option. As the Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (88a) famously states, God “suspended the mountain over them” and threatened to kill them if they refused the Torah. Whether one understands this description literally or figuratively, it is clear that the covenant was forced upon Benei Yisrael. The Maharal asserts that the rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” applies only to one who chooses to enter into the covenant, but not when one is coerced into doing so, as Benei Yisrael were. Therefore, they remained halakhically related to their biological family members, and the laws of arayot applied.
A number of later writers struggled to understand the explanation for this distinction. If conversion marks a person’s “rebirth,” such that he loses his previous familial connections, then why should it matter whether the conversion was done voluntarily or under coercion?
Some explained that the “rebirth” of conversion results from the convert’s firm, resolute decision to disconnect himself from his past. This decision to leave everything he had known and create a new self-identity – as a member of God’s special nation – has the halakhic effect of dissolving all his previous legal relationships. At Mount Sinai, however, Benei Yisrael did not make a decision to dissociate themselves from their past. To the contrary, Ma’amad Har Sinai marked the culmination of a process that began centuries earlier, in the times of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to whom God promised that He would forge a special relationship with their offspring. Unlike in the case of normal conversions, Benei Yisrael were not called upon to dissociate from their past, but rather built upon their past, entering into a covenant to finalize the special relationship that had begun to be created generations earlier. (An explanation along these lines is offered by Rav Naftali Trop, in Chiddushei Ha-Granat, Yevamot, 11.)
This distinction is certainly understandable, but it does not appear to be the Maharal’s intent, as he emphasized the difference between a voluntary conversion and a coerced process of conversion.
Rav Asher Weiss suggests a slightly different distinction between Ma’amad Har Sinai and ordinary geirut, differentiating between an individual conversion, and the conversion of an entire nation. As Benei Yisrael all “converted” together, they retained their relationships with one another. The rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” applies when an individual convert, or a group of converts, leave their nation to join Am Yisrael. In Benei Yisrael’s case, however, they all joined together, as a single entity, without leaving a different nation, and so they did not relinquish their familial connections.