Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Last year, I noted what Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says about the Sinaitic revelation, that “Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel [gigis] and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, good; but if not, there will be your burial’” (Shabbos 88a).

What I suggested then was that a law in Devarim (22: 28-29) might be pertinent to that element of coercion: If a man forces himself upon a woman, he is fined, but also must (if the woman wishes) marry her and, unlike in any other marriage, cannot ever divorce her. The implication for Hashem’s having “forced” His relationship with Klal Yisrael should be self-evident.

That same Gemara in Shabbos, though, also teaches that the element of “coercion” at Sinai stood as a “remonstration” against the Jewish People, for their seeming lack of full agency at the time. It was remedied only centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.

The “coercion,” the Maharal explains, was essentially the powerful nature of the experience itself, the interaction of human and Divine, which left no opportunity for true free choice.

Enter Purim. Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where it was not in any way obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance. By choosing to see Hashem’s  hand, they supplied what Sinai lacked, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was – and is – wholehearted, sincere and pure.

The “barrel” of Rav Avdimi’s description, thus, may be deeply meaningful. After all, isn’t a mountain overhead not sufficiently frightening?  Who needs a barrel metaphor?

A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.

In Pirkei Avos (4), Rabi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” That advice may have application here. The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion at Sinai may not have revealed our people’s truest nature. What does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity, like ours on Purim, when we imbibe what a gigis holds. As Rabbi Elai said (Eiruvin 65b), a person’s true character can be ascertained “in his cup.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

My most recent Ami column, “All Hail the High Court!”, can be read here.And a piece I wrote about whether the Holocaust, among so many other mass atrocities, is in a category of its own was published by Religion News Service last week and can be read here.

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