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Parshat Yitro - How Does the Covenant Work Exactly?

01/29/2024 09:59:23 AM


Rabbi Rudin


On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai…the Israelites encamped there in front of the mountain.


Moses went up to God. יהוה called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.


Now then, if you will hear my Voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine,

but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”


Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that יהוה had commanded him.


All those assembled answered as one, saying, “All that יהוה has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to יהוה.

-Exodus 19:1-8

By accepting the Covenant, our ancestors  at Sinai and their descendants become connected to G-d, bound by the Covenant  for all time.  


All of our family’s ordeal: the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the descent to Egypt, the years of enslavement and oppression, the Exodus, crossing of the Sea, the nourishment by Mannah and journey to Sinai, all led to this one irrevocable choice to be G-d’s Covenant People.  


But how does that work exactly?  How does a commitment taken by our ancestors 3,500 years ago apply to us?    How can one  generation make a commitment that binds a future generation?  Where’s our signature on the dotted line?


Here is one way to look at it: The Beit HaLevi, Hasidic Rabbi Yitzchak Levi of Berditchev, wrote that by accepting the Covenant, the Jewish people became, “G-d’s own people”- acquired by G-d for eternity throughout all our generations.


 Certainly, looking at our history, we see that the sociological and demographic rules and norms that seem to govern human affairs, that bring nations into being and eventually dissolve them don’t seem to have a hold on the Jewish people.  Am Yisrael Chai, we have learned even in the midst of tragedy, means that we are still here, still strong, still dedicated to bringing light to the world. 


 The fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution similarly gives citizenship 

to all those born here on these shores.  Even though it has come under attack in recent years, the principle that all who live in the United States deserve the protection of their inalienable rights conferred by citizenship is a noble one. 


We can imagine the effect that the Covenant had on the freed Hebrew slaves: no more slavery, no more being bound to human whim; freed forever of the yoke of man, subject only to the Will of G-d. 


Many over history have sought to revoke that Covenant through oppression, violence and even genocide.  Many of those born Jews themselves have sought to deny or denigrate what it means.  Somehow, in some way, we have a unique path and a unique role.  Not supremacy, not privilege; responsibility. 


The Covenant at Sinai, like the responsibilities of citizenship in our democracy, is not a passive one but one that must be reclaimed, re-lived every moment. 


Forty years after the moment in Exodus, Moses, in his final words, says,

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone,

but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God יהוה and with those who are not with us here this day.


We must live it, we do live it, one way or another.  It is embedded in our lives.  Maybe in a similar way, Justice Louis Brandeis said, “The most important political office is that of private citizen.” 


Maybe the Torah is telling us that whatever else we are, Jews we are.  By embracing our identity, by actualizing our identity, even in the smallest way, we are adding light to the world.


Shabbat Shalom!

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784