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Thursday, 20 January, 2011 - 12:00 am

I received a great deal of nachas from a recent phone call. A former community member, who now lives elsewhere, called to tell me about his experience on a cruise to Antarctica. He excitedly informed that he met Jews from all over. 

“In fact,” he tells me, “One elderly gentleman told me that he had never put on tefillin. I immediately offered him to join me in my cabin and do the mitzvah with my tefillin. After initially declining, he agreed (thanks to the urging of his wife). I helped him wrap tefillin and congratulated him on the deed.

“But it wasn’t over yet. The next day, he came knocking on my door and I helped him don phylacteries again. Before parting ways, I told him to visit the local Chabad center in his hometown, where he would undoubtedly receive assistance to continue this newfound mitzvah.”


In a comment referencing this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, the Talmud states (paraphrased):

At the Giving of the Torah, G-d overturned Mount Sinai upon the Children of Israel like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: "If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your burial."

Rabbi Acha ben Yaakov observed: This resulted in a strong legal contest against the Torah (since it was a contract entered into under duress). Said Raba: But they re-accepted it (out of their own, uncompelled choice) in the days of Achashverosh, as it is written (Esther 9:27): "The Jews confirmed, and accepted" -- on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.

The Talmud quotes from the Torah’s language to prove its point. Nonetheless, it still begs the question: The Jews explicitly agreed to G-d’s Torah as evidenced by their famous proclamation, “Naaseh v’nishma” – “(All that G-d said) we will do and we will hear.” So why is the Talmud doubting their eagerness?


Chassidic thought teaches that the symbolism of the mountain represents a great heap of love. In other words, G-d piled on so much love and affection toward the Israelites that they were compelled to accept His Torah. If any of us were privy to such intense and intimate display of Divine revelation, we too would have no choice other than to accept anything we were told. This doesn’t mean the Jews were dazzled into agreement; it simply means the elements that usually interfere with selfless devotion were overshadowed and melted away in face of G-d’s embrace.

It may be compared to the promises a child makes to her parents after receiving a fabulous gift. Those promises are true, but they are inspired by the good feelings of the moment. In fact, they are truer than the feelings expressed in less glorious moments of tantrums and mischief. They are automatic during the euphoria, but may dissipate in its absence.

When the child later lives up to her promise, she has displayed true ownership of those feelings. Previously they were imposed upon her. Now she has displayed that they come from within.

Similarly, the Talmud is teaching, the Jews were awfully enthusiastic about receiving the Torah. But they didn’t earn that passion of their own accord. Later, in a more difficult moment, they achieved true internalization. In the times of Esther and Mordechai they embraced the Torah – despite the challenges.


This, to me, is the power of the Jewish soul. 

A Jew lives Jewishly in a synagogue and Jewish community. Against the odds, he brings the mitzvos with him to total strangers and to the South Pole. 

A man seems to agree to lay tefillin because of external influence. But deep down inside, he comes back asking for more.

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