This week’s parasha describes the dramatic moment when the People of Israel signed the Covenant with God at Sinai, a mutual agreement between People and God, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments (more accurately “Ten Precepts”) that form the backbone of the Written Law.
The receiving of the Torah marks the official incorporation of Am Yisrael—the final step in the transition from disparate individuals with a common kinship and history into a people, bound to each other by irrevocable decree.
And yet, there is some question of whether the Covenant was a voluntary agreement. The people are promised peoplehood in exchange for obedience:
|Moshe ascended to God, and the Eternal called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel,
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me.
And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.
And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
וּמשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה׳ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָֽאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָֽאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי:
וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִֽהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
The people would appear to be offered a choice to accept the Covenant or to say “No thank you,” and go about their business. Instead, they enthusiastically agreed to the conditions:
|Moshe came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Eternal had commanded him.
And all the people replied in unison and said, “All that the Eternal has spoken we shall do!” and Moses took the words of the people back to the Eternal.
וַיָּבֹ֣א משֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ ה׳:
וַיַּֽעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַֽעֲשֶׂ֑ה וַיָּ֧שֶׁב משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־יְהוָֹֽה:
And so the ceremony of acceptance of the Covenant is set up with all the pomp and circumstance of a wedding. The people are told to hold themselves ready for three days, to refrain from sexual intercourse, and to steer clear of the mountain on which the ceremony will take place:
|It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning , and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered.
Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.
וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּֽחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּמַּֽחֲנֶֽה:
וַיּוֹצֵ֨א משֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים מִן־הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר:
What follows is a scene of such awesome power and terror that the people retreat from the mountain and ask that Moshe go forward alone: “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” Moshe is depicted as going into הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל — the “opaque darkness where God was”
The Talmud, ever sensitive to textual nuances, picks up on the hints of darkness and unease:
|“They stood below the mountain (Sh’mot 19:17)
This teaches that God overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, there shall be your burial.”
Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov observed: This provides a strong legal contest against the Torah (since it was a contract entered into under duress).
Said Rava: But they reaccepted it (out of their own, uncompelled choice) in the days of Ahasuerus, as it is written (Esther 9:27): “The Jews confirmed and accepted”—on that occasion they confirmed what they had accepted long before.
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
(שמות יט, יז) ויתיצבו בתחתית ההרא”ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם,
א”ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא.
אמר רבא אעפ”כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט, כז) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
The ratification of exile
Why in the time of Ahasuerus? The story of Esther is the quintessential story of exile: the Temple is in ruins and the people of Israel and Judea scattered to the four winds. Jews live under the rule of foreign despots and the specter of genocide is never far away. In essence the exile was a return to the circumstances of Egypt. So why how could it be that the exiled Jews of Persia “ratified” the Torah that had been given at Sinai?
One answer may be that the exiles were the ones best suited to do so because they were living in exile. With God’s hand nowhere in evidence, they were free of any hint of divine compulsion. As opposed to the generation of Sinai, who were overwhelmed by the thunder and lightening, and the sound of the shofar from the mountain, the Jews of exile could choose not to trust in divine providence. They had every reason to cease being Jews and simply assimilate into the larger peoples around them. But they didn’t! When Haman’s decree of extermination fell upon them, they didn’t hide among the nations; rather, they stood firm, fasted and prayed, and made ready to fight and die. In their determination not to give up on the promise made at Sinai, despite their having every excuse to do so, they did indeed “confirm and accept” the Torah anew.
And this is exactly the fulfillment of the terms of the Covenant from God’s side: the promise of enduring peoplehood—a kingdom of priests. This sense of peoplehood is something that religious creeds alone cannot provide. As Michael Wyschogrod eloquently pointed out, Judaism is more than an ideology or religion:
Judaism is not a set of ideas. There are ideas that are specifically Jewish and that can be presented as the teachings of Judaism. But they do not constitute Judaism. Separated from the Jewish people, nothing is Judaism. If anything, it is the Jewish people that is Judaism. (The Body of Faith, p. 174)
Judaism runs far deeper than the cerebellum. It is not a “set of ideas” nor an ideology; it is a culture, a commonality of peoplehood, a family… It is built of things that touch us on a visceral level, far below the conscious, thinking, rationalizing mind. It is a thing of the heart and soul, not the mind. And as such, ideas alone should not define who is in and who is out. Judaism is not a religion! It is not a worldview or a set of beliefs about the world or about God, or even about the place of human beings in the world. Although all of those things are part of Judaism, they do not define its essence, nor do they set the boundaries for inclusion or exclusion.
The ties that bind
So what does set those boundaries? It is part of the nature of such things that they defy definition. But our Parasha’s titular character may offer some insight. After all Yitro, Moshe’s Father-in-law, is traditionally considered to be the nation’s first “Jew by choice”. What makes someone leave behind home, family, and career to bind himself to the Jewish people? What makes someone endanger her life to serve in a Jewish army to guard the Jewish State? What makes someone give up his life in loyalty, not to an idea, but to a commitment? These things defy rational explanation, but we instinctively know where the boundaries of peoplehood lie.
Maimonides sums up this visceral quality of fellowship: “one who diverges from communal paths, even if he commits no transgression but merely separates himself form the congregation of Israel, and does not participate in their sorrow, loses his share in the world to come.” (Maimonides, Mishnah torah, Hilkhot Yeshivah 3:11.)
So far has the Torah’s prescriptions taken us on the path of peoplehood that we no longer even question these obligations. The stipulation “If you obey My commandments… you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests (or princes)” is seen to be a self-fulfilling prophecy! Judaism represents the epitome of a horizontally-networked society—every individual is a leader. There is no executive; rather, the executive is in each individual’s determination to obey the mitzvot—a true leaderless society.
But this training in solidarity is only the beginning; carried to its logical conclusion, our concern for our own spills over into a concern for the well-being of those outside the tribe. The natural bonds to those we are close to serve as a model for all other bonds. The individual becomes, in the eloquent words of Rav Kook:
… [O]ne whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions. (Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444)