By Rabbi Jesse Horn
The Gemara Shabbat (85a) records a seemingly odd narrative where Hashem holds a mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael and offers that they either accept His Torah or die, implying that Bnei Yisrael were originally forced to accept the Torah. The Gemara concludes that Bnei Yisrael later accepted the Torah freely for themselves.
Even if we interpret this episode as figurative and non-literal, designed to make an ideological point, what is that ideological point? What value is there in forcing a nation to accept the Torah? And moreover, whatever was accomplished by forcing them should have been lost when they later accepted it for themselves? And if self-acceptance is the ideal, why not just start out with that?
Perhaps the answer is based on a counter-intuitive interpretation that the Sfat Emet (Parshat Yitro) has regarding “Naaseh V’Nishmah.” He understands “Naaseh V’Nishmah” to mean “We will do, so that we can understand (listen).” At first glance this seems strange. Should one not understand something first before doing it? Is commitment not stronger once it has been properly understood?
No! True, understanding first enables one to make a more educated decision, but the goal of Torah is not to understand intellectuality and then decide whether the Mitzvot are in one’s best interest. The goal of the Torah is to commit to what Hashem wants, simply because He is Hashem. A central component of having a relationship with Hashem (although there are many more, nuanced components) is the realization and acceptance of His will simply because it is His will.
Understanding is second because it is secondary. Moreover, intellectual comprehension is designed to enable an emotional connection. Only after accustoming oneself to Torah does understanding become more than something merely intellectual. Only after accustoming oneself to Torah does one internalize its value.
Because religious observance is a prerequisite to deep internalization, Hashem held a mountain above Bnei Yisrael’s heads, ensuring they would act in accordance with the Mitzvot before they accepted them out of will love. That is precisely what the Sfat Emet intended with his understanding of “We will do, so that we can understand.” Religious observance is an imperative and precondition.