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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Yisro 5771 - "The Covenant"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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YISRO 5771


Phillip is getting older and his health is deteriorating rapidly. He moved out to California to enjoy the comfortable climate as his strength continues to ebb away. When he feels his end is nearing he calls his best friend in New York.


“Yeah, what’s doing Phil?”

“I need you to come out to California. I don’t have much time left and I have something I must confess before I go.”

So Irving gets on the next flight out and rushes to his friend’s bedside.

“Phillip, I’m here what is it that you needed to tell me?”

“Irv, I just have to admit it to someone, and you’re my best friend. I gotta tell you I converted.”

“You converted? Phil, what are you talking? You’re becoming delirious.”

“Phil, I know what I’m saying. I converted.”

“I can’t believe it Phillip. Here your whole life you lived as a good Jew. And now in you’re last weeks of your life you convert?”

“Well Irv, I made a calculation like this. You know that there are so few Jews in the world and so many gentiles. If someone has to die, better one of them should die than one of us.”

The most seminal event that ever occurred, which vindicated all of creation, and gave the world purpose and destiny, was the giving of the Torah to Klal Yisroel on Sinai. Far beyond a mere constitution stating judicial law by which to abide, the Torah is the book of life, the key to a meaningful existence and to of all the happenings in the universe.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes[1] that, unlike all other constitutions which are composed by mortals as the code of law for their newfound societies, the Torah transcends man. All other religions and laws emanate from contemporary humanity, and therefore, they evolved into whatever man’s conception was of G-d at the time of the religion’s formation. Just like art, drama, culture, morals, and manners differ based on culture and time-period so do all other religions.

“But the Jewish ‘religion’ and the Jewish law did not emanate from the contemporary convictions of human beings. They do not contain the convictions of any certain people at any certain time of what G-d is and what G-dly and human matters are. They are given by G-d and contain that which according to the Will of G-d, should be man’s convictions in all ages regarding G-d and G-dly matters, and above all, of men, and human matters.”

Rabbi Hirsch continues that the Jewish people are by nature the most obdurate and skeptical of nations. The fact that they were willing to accept the Torah unequivocally is proof that the Torah did not emanate from the people but was given to the people.

This is also why the Torah had to be given in the wilderness, on a heretofore unknown mountain. Moreover virtually no one - no person or animal - was allowed to be standing on Sinai when the Torah was given. The day before it possessed no sanctity, and the day after the revelation it again returned to its mundane status. But while the Torah was given no human life was to be in proximity of the mountain, to impress upon them that the Torah is of superhuman origin, and incorporates the entire world.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks[2] explains that what was transacted at Sinai was not a contract but a covenant. He explains, “In a contract, two or more individuals each pursuing their own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. So there are commercial contracts that create the market, and there is the social contract that creates the state. A covenant is something different, more like a marriage than a deal. In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone.

“A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about two or more ‘I’s coming together to form a ‘We’. A contract can be terminated with mutual consent when it is no longer in the interests of the parties to continue. A covenant binds the parties even in – especially in – difficult times. This is because a covenant is not about interests but about loyalty, fidelity, holding together when everything else is driving you apart. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.”

When the Torah was given, it created an eternal covenant between G-d and Klal Yisroel, as it were. “And now, if you will hearken well to Me and you will preserve My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from all the other nations, for all the earth is Mine.[3]

It is also significant to note the geographical setting of the giving of the Torah. The covenant was enacted in the desert. The Israelites were no longer a band of escaped slaves; now they were transformed into an eidah, a civil people, with a destiny and a mission. This transpired despite the fact that they did not yet have a home. At that point in time they were a nomadic nation without a land. Never otherwise in history did a polity create a constitution before it had a home. But in regards to the Torah, the laws precede – and supersede – the land.

In the time of the prophet Shmuel, over four hundred and fifty years after the Torah was given at Sinai, Klal Yisroel became a kingdom, ruled by a dynasty of monarchs. But until then they were a nation. A kingdom is about rulers, government, and the distribution of power. But being a nation is chiefly focused on accepting and fulfilling commandments, morality, and sharing responsibility. Before we became a kingdom we had to become a nation.

Shortly after the Jews’ triumphant and miraculous ascension from the Sea of Reeds, the nation arrived in Marah where they found no water. “He cried out to G-d and G-d showed a tree to him; he threw it in the water and the water became sweet. There He established for the nation a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested it.[4]

Ramban explains[5] that the nation was now commencing a long trek through the desert that would last decades. Moshe was instructing them about the realities of life in the wilderness that they would imminently encounter. They would have to learn to tolerate a certain degree of hunger and thirst, and to pray to G-d for their needs. “He established a decree” refers to Moshe informing them of the realities of their situation. “An ordinance” refers to the protocol the nation would have to follow. The Ramban explains what that protocol consisted of: “Each person love his fellowman, and conduct himself in accord with the counsel of elders, and that they act modestly in their tents with regard to the women and children, and that they should act peacefully towards those who might come to the camp to sell them something, and admonitions of restrained behavior that they should not be like the camps of marauders, who shamelessly commit all sorts of abominations…”

The test at that time was to see if the burgeoning nation could indeed commit to such a noble lifestyle despite the fact that they were living nomadically and unsettled. Very often such Bedouin tribes live without scruples and morals as they have no one to answer to and their lifestyle breeds certain preclusion to normal ethics and moral living. But Klal Yisroel had to prove their worthiness in this regard before they could be deemed worthy of receiving the Torah. In this sense they had to prove that they could uphold the covenant before they would commit to it.

To be a Jew is to be part of a regal nation who lives for a higher purpose. He is part of a binding covenant, a covenant that demands his unyielding allegiance and commitment; a covenant that makes him a card-carrying member of the Chosen People.

“You will be a treasure to Me from all the other nations”

“He established for the nation a decree and an ordinance”

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[1] 19:11

[2] Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Future Tense

[3] 19:5

[4] 15:25

[5] Ramban actually offers three explanations. This is the third.

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