At Har Sinai, Am Yisroel “stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Shemos 19:17) “Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: [This] teaches that the Holy One Blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as [though it were an upturned] vat. And He said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine. But, if not, your burial will be there.’”
"Rav Acha bar Yaakov said: From here [stem] strong [grounds for a] notification [of coercion] regarding [acceptance of] the Torah. Rava said: Nevertheless, they accepted [the Torah] again in the days of Achashverosh, as it is written, ‘kimu v’kiblu … the Jews established and accepted,’ [meaning that] they established [in the days of Achashverosh] that which they had already accepted [in the days of Moshe].” (Shabbos 88a)
And what was different about “the days of Achashverosh” which would make it possible for Am Yisroel to accept the Torah without “coercion?”
Another interesting question arises: why does Rava say “the days of Achashverosh” rather than the “the days of Mordechai and Esther?” Since the Gemora is referring to Har Sinai, when the leader of Am Yisroel was Moshe Rabbeinu, one would think the reference regarding the days of Purim should be to Mordechai and Esther, not Achashverosh.
Below I will suggest why the answer to that question may help us understand this Gemora.
Imagine Am Yisroel standing at Har Sinai. Our ancestors had just left Mitzraim amidst the greatest miracles ever seen by living people on this earth. Led by the greatest man in history, they approached Har Sinai, which was trembling and smoking. Any person unmoved by this spectacle would be emotionally dead. One had to tremble.
Can you imagine not saying “na’ase v’nishma” at that moment? Can you imagine that someone would hold back from complete acceptance of everything stated by the Voice thundering upon the mountain and repeated by Moshe Rabbeinu?
Or Hachaim asks why the Torah employs the double expression “im sh’moa tishm’u …. Listen, you will listen.” (Shemos 19:5) “Perhaps,” he says, “Hashem intended to instruct them that [they would need to accept two [distinct] components of the Torah, one that He would convey to them in that setting [namely the Written Torah], and one that is comprised of the Oral Law, and the laws derived from the Written Torah by the Sages…. One that they would hear from His mouth at that time, and one [that they would hear] in the future from the mouths of the Sages….”(ibid)
Consider the contrast between the Written and Oral Torah in light of the circumstances at Har Sinai. The events described in the Written Torah were actually happening before the very eyes of our ancestors. One would not need “coercion” to accept the Written Torah. It was a record of what they were seeing with their own eyes!
But the Oral Torah was in the future, a vast body of laws which were going to involve every thought and action which would ever take place. In addition, to understand and incorporate them into one’s being would require a lifetime of study and commitment. It was a tremendous challenge for Am Yisroel to take upon itself this huge, unlimited body of law which it did not yet understand. As the Or Hachaim says, “the words of the Sages are things that have no maximum measure and thus there is no limit to such a commitment, for in every generation the Sages may pass new laws, safeguards and enactments. Who … can uphold a Torah such as this that has no maximum measure? For this reason they (the generation at Har Sinai) left the matter undecided…and accepted upon themselves only the Written Torah.” (ibid)
Contrast this with the days of Shushan Habira. Why does Rava call it the “days of Achashverosh?” Perhaps this is an answer: if Achashverosh is the dominant power, then we are not going to be awed by his moral standing the way we were awed by, lehavdil, the Presence of Hashem and the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai. Our ancestors may have been physically afraid of Achashverosh and tempted by his banquet, but they had no respect for him and his amoral culture. In this moral vacuum our ancestors clearly perceived the moral superiority of Mordechai and Esther.
When the Jews in Shushan Habira were faced with a life and death situation, Hashem’s face was hidden. All that Am Yisroel had to guide it were those very Sages whose future rulings were so potentially frightening to the Yidden at Har Sinai. But in Shushan Habira, those who feared for their lives saw clearly the greatness of Mordechai and the mesiras nefesh of Esther Hamalkah. They perceived the wisdom of the Sages and realized that their rulings and guidance were the only means they had to escape the decrees of their enemies.
At that moment, “when they saw the wise, life-saving actions that Mordechai and Esther had taken [on their behalf to annul Haman’s decree], they once more took [it upon themselves, this time] willingly, to fulfill every new thing that the Sages would enact for them, after they saw how great were the deeds of the righteous [Mordechai and Esther].” (Or Hachaim, ibid) Thus, Purim became the pattern for our future redemption and full acceptance of the Written and Oral Torah.
May Hashem grant that all of us take to heart the lesson of this amazing series of events, which brought home to our Nation that the Torah is only complete with both facets of what we heard at Har Sinai: “Im sh’moa tishm’u … listen and you will listen.” The events of Purim completed our acceptance of the entire Torah and paved the way for our Complete and Final Redemption, may we see it soon in our own days!