Remember, you heard it here first. One can have meat meals throughout Shavuos, and eat no blintzes or cheesecake, without fear of Divine retribution. Although Shavuos comes and goes relatively quickly, it carries a message that far transcends the dining room menu that often seems to dominate it.
There are two famous traditions about Shavuos. One, recounted in the Sifrei on Devarim 33:2, is that G-d offered the Torah to all the nations of the earth. However, they felt that its restrictions against murder, adultery, and theft were too limiting for their lifestyles, so they respectfully declined. But when G-d offered the Jewish People the Torah, they responded with naaseh v’nishma (Shemos 24:7) — “We will do what is in the Torah and we will listen to its precepts.” In other words, Israel accepted the Torah with no preconditions, but simply out of love for G-d and willingness to submit to His laws.
But there is a second well-known Shavuos tradition that seems to counter this, in which Israel, far from being willing recipients of the Torah, seems to have been coerced into accepting it. In this source, (Shabbos 88a) G-d holds the mountain over them and declares, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, this will be your burial place.” So Israel, having no choice, accepted it.
Which one was it? Did we accept the Torah willingly, or were we coerced? Particularly baffling is that the mountain was held over our heads after we had already said naaseh v’nishma.
Something very crucial is being taught here, and that is that the mountain was held over our heads to demonstrate that Torah is not something that is subject to human, temporal choice — just as breathing is not subject to choice. Torah is eternal life and cannot be made subject to humankind’s looking at its positives and negatives and then deciding to accept or reject. That which is eternal does not sit and wait for the ephemeral jury to make up its mind and deliver its verdict after it deigns to weigh all the pros and cons.
In brief, the mountain over our heads really says that Torah is not an option, not a matter of choosing or rejecting. We do not elect to serve G-d, we do not consult polling data about it, we do not decide about it. For Israel to feel that it accepted the Torah after weighing all the data would be demeaning to the Torah, for that would suggest that Israel could have rejected the Torah had it so chosen. Yet Torah — “ki heim chayeinu,” our very life itself — is necessary and mandatory, not a matter of choice. And in the end Israel understood the fundamental fact that Torah is beyond human choice, and accepted the coercion with love.
What this means for us is that every mitzvah we perform contains a fusion of the subjective and the objective. We bring to every mitzvah our love and gratitude and connection to G-d. But even if we have a weak connection to Him, we still perform the mitzvah because it is a mandatory commandment of our Creator — asher kidshanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu — and transcends our personal feelings.
Thus, even when we do a mitzvah because of love of G-d — which is the ideal way to serve Him — it still must contain an element of mitzvah-as-command. Actions that stem from love and feelings and emotions are subjective; being human, they change and fluctuate. Conversely, actions that stem from a Divine commandment do not fluctuate; they are constant and objective, not subject to change. The shadow of the mountain hovers overhead, because service of G-d cannot be simply a matter of flighty, ephemeral, and changeable human choice.
In brief, G-d wants us to serve Him because of love, but at the same time He wants us to serve Him because we know we have no other choice. Thus the two traditions are not contradictory, but complementary.
In any case, lest thoughts of coercion leave a residue of discomfort, let me end on a note of reassurance. Since eating dairy blintzes and cheesecake on Shavuos is not a mitzvah per se, this means that coercion is not a factor as we indulge in them. They can be consumed simply because of our love for them — because we want to and not because we have to.