We read this week about מתן תורה the giving or the receiving of the Torah. There is a very strange Midrash concerning this episode. The Torah tells us that the people stood at Mt. Sinai בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר at the bottom of the mountain. (Ex. 19,17) Oddly enough the literal translation of these words means “under the mountain”.
Because of this wording Chazal tell us that Hashem lifted up the mountain and placed it over the heads of the people and said:אם אתם מקבלים התורה – מוטב, “if you accept the Torah, fine. If not you will be destroyed here.” (Shab. 88a) Obviously, He was forcing them to accept the Torah.
What happened? We shall read next week that the people were so ready to accept the Torah that they proclaimed: נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע “we will do and we will obey”. (Ex. 24,7) According to Chazal this passage preceded receiving the Torah and they were willing to accept it readily without even knowing what was in it. Why did Hashem have to force it on them now? The commentary of the Tosafot (Shab. 88a) explains that there was thunder and lightning and the mountain was engulfed in flame. This frightened the Israelites.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik explains that when they were first told that they would be a Chosen People they were delighted. When they stood close to the mountain and they were close to Hashem they developed exceptional prophetic vision. They saw that being a Chosen People entails major tragedies because of the hatred that would develop against them among the nations of the world. Of that, the fiery mountain was an omen. It was then that they wanted to back out of the agreement with Hashem and did not want to accept the Torah. Throughout history the Jews have seen the result of being a Chosen People.