Categorized | Columnists, Rabbi Yogi

Our ancestors gave themselves and us to God

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

There is a great political cartoon I saw recently titled Genesis of the Trial Attorney. The single-frame cartoon depicts Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone in his hands. The Jewish people stand below, seemingly ready to accept the law in its fullness, when one man comes forward with confidence and opines, “OK… You say ‘commandments’ but I hear ‘recommendations.’”
As Shavuot nears and we prepare ourselves to re-accept the Torah and its laws anew, the crafty assertion made by this fictional attorney bears great consideration, if not for those who stood at Sinai, but for all the future generations of Jews who would come from that notable generation. For even if those at Sinai accepted the Torah’s laws with their celebrated cry of consent — “na’aseh v’nishma” (“we will do and then we will understand”) — all future generations did not. What, then, obligates them — us — in this divine contract? After all, can a parent accept a contract that extends to their children who have no say in the matter?
Nonetheless, we know that Torah literature takes our obligation of Torah law as a given. After all, they are called the 613 mitzvot (“commandments” — not “good deeds” as the word “mitzva” is so often mistranslated). Similarly, the Talmud is replete with the statement “kvar mushva ve’omed me’har Sinai,” “(a Jew is) already sworn in at Mount Sinai.” What is, then, the halachic mechanism that binds later generations of Jews to the Sinaitic commitment of their forefathers?
None other than Nachmanides (1194-1270) tackles this thorny issue. In Nachmanides’ opinion, the oath of an entire nation is fundamentally different from the oath of an individual. Whereas an individual can obligate only himself in a contract or oath, a national oath passes on to all future members of that nation.
In my mind, I imagine it as similar to a treaty made between nations. For even if the presidents of the countries who negotiated a peace agreement were to die (or similarly, if the citizens who elected those officials were to die), the treaty’s binding nature would continue unabated. Why? Because the agreement itself ultimately lay between larger entities, in this case countries, and those entities are alive and well. So it is with the oath made at Sinai. The nation itself accepted the Torah, and all future members of the tribe would enter into the agreement of “na’aseh v’nishma” as a result.
In honor of the coming holiday and in honor of the in-depth Torah study that lies at Shavuot’s core, I’d like to offer a fresh approach to our original question based on the scholarly writings of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), known throughout the Torah world as the Beis Halevi. The Beis Halevi (Drushim, 17) was bothered with a different component of the “na’aseh v’nishma” oath: namely, why the Jewish people’s oath was ever considered halachically valid in the first place. After all, Jewish law states that a commitment is not considered legally binding unless all of the details and requirements of that commitment are clearly specified and delineated at the time of the agreement (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 207:21). In the case of the Jews at Sinai, the proverbial cart most certainly came before the horse, as their national pledge proceeded the delineation of the vast majority of the commandments.
The Beis Halevi suggests an approach to this question by noting a seeming contradiction to the aforementioned law. Halacha allows a person to sell himself as a slave (the nature of the unique type of slavery that the Torah allows is beyond the scope of this article). A slave does not know exactly what kind of work he will be forced to do by his new master, nor the number of hours his work will entail. Nevertheless, such a sale is halachically valid. Why?
According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the reason is because a slave is selling himself and his body (something quantifiable). What a slave is not doing is agreeing to a series of future unknown obligatory tasks (as that would most certainly be ruled an invalid agreement).
So too, says the Beis Halevi, the Jews at Mount Sinai were not merely agreeing to a series of yet unspoken laws (something considerably problematic in halacha). Rather, they were offering themselves, their whole selves — body and soul — to God as servants.
Based on this, perhaps we can suggest that the reason why all future generations are obligated in a Torah to which they themselves never swore allegiance is because they were born to people who had given themselves to God as servants. And a child born of a slave is a slave himself.
Ashreinu. How blessed are we to be servants of God. Servants to a loving Master who desires our best and rewards us fully for our good deeds. Ashreinu. How lucky are we to have laws that not only uplift, but sanctify us!
Such servitude is yet freedom by another name.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@gmail.com.

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