Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Who's on First? On Sinai? In Moab?

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)
These verses are part of Moses’ third and final address to the Israelites who are encamped in Moab and preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). For our Rabbis, however, the “covenant” in verse 13 refers to Sinai, and these words were uttered when Torah was revealed.

Who are those who are standing here with us this day, and who are those who are not with us here this day?

Perhaps you noticed that “standing” is used in the first part of verse 14, but not in the second part of the same verse? Midrash explains that those standing here with us this day are all the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai when God gave Torah. The second part of the verse, those who are not with us here this day, refers to all the prophets and sages whose revelation and wisdom will fill the pages of Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketubim (Writings), and Talmud; they are not standing because they have not yet come to be. This interpretation permits the Rabbis to include all the elements of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah in the revelation at Sinai.
Another explanation of And God spoke all these words, saying: R. Yitzhak said: The prophets received from Sinai the messages they were to prophesy to subsequent generations; for Moses told Israel but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. It does not say “that are not here standing with us this day” but rather “not with us here this day” – these are the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them, the word “standing” is not used with them… [Exodus Rabbah 28:6]
We find an even more expansive and inclusive view in the Talmud (masechet Shevuot 39a) where we are told that the phrase those who are not with us here this day includes all the future generations of Israel, as well as all who will enter the Jewish People through conversion. But the gemara goes even further making an even more remarkable claim:
…And from this [i.e., those who are not with us here this day] we know only [that the generations yet to be born were obligated to] the commandments that they received at Mt. Sinai. How do we know that they [the generations yet to be born, as well as future converts to Judaism] [were obligated to] the commandments that were to be promulgated later, such as reading the Megillah [the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim]? Because it is said, They confirmed and accepted [Esther 9:27]: they confirmed what they had long ago accepted [at Mt. Sinai].
This is about including all the generations of the People Israel in the Sinai covenant. The gemara is saying that not only are future generations retroactively included in the covenant of Mt. Sinai, but also future generations are included in future understandings of what constitutes Torah and its obligations, as interpreted by future generations, after Sinai.

How do we approach the notion of being born into obligation at a time and in a social milieu that rejects anything that conflicts with our complete and unfettered freedom of choice? How do we respond when our kids say, “I didn’t choose to be born Jewish”? We can respond by gently and calmly telling them that they are heir to many blessings: the blessing of belonging, the blessing of being accepted by a community, and the blessing of having a tradition and a heritage. They may not fully appreciate all this, but it is we, their parents, who make these blessings real and tangible and powerful for them by living them in our own lives. Our children learn more from what we do than what we say. Our words merely confirm the values we articulate, or prove us hypocrites.

© Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman 2009

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