When Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah, it is much more than a passive act; they actively enter into a brit, a covenant, with God. The brit preceded the giving of the commandments and was its framing (Shemot, 19:5-8):
וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
|And now, if you will listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a treasured possession from all the nations…And Moshe came and called to the elders of the nation, and he placed before them all of these things that God had commanded him. And the entire nation answered together and said, “Everything that God has said we will do.”|
The brit also comes after the Ten Commandments, in the opening of Parashat Mishpatim: “And these are the laws which you shall place before them” (Shemot, 21:1). This echoes the “placing before them” found in Shemot 19:7, the intention being to place the laws before the people for their approval and willing acceptance, which we find at the close of the same parasha (Shemot, 24:3-8):
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל־דִּבְרֵי ה וְאֵת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל־הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה׃
וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר ה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע׃
וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת־הַדָּם וַיִּזְרֹק עַל־הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה דַם־הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת ה
עִמָּכֶם עַל כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃
|And Moshe came and he related to the people all of the words of God and all the laws [the “words” presumably referring to the aseret ha’devarim and the “laws” to the mishpatim, the civil laws] and the entire nation responded as one voice and said, all the words which God has spoken we will do … And he took the book of the covenant and he read it to the people, and they said: everything that God has spoken we will do and we will hear. And Moshe took the blood and he sprinkled it on the people and he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which God has made with you concerning all these commands”|
The laws are placed before the people, and they accept them, entering into a brit with God, a binding, two-sided covenant. Thus Bnei Yisrael are not simply commanded; they actively and freely accept the commandment of God and enter into a brit with God.
Why, we might ask, does commandedness not suffice? Would the people not be obligated to follow God’s command even if they had not entered into a brit? In fact, the shift from unilateral commadedness to a two-sided brit occurs much earlier, at the beginning of Breishit. Adam and Chava were given a unilateral Divine command, and they violated it. The next time God commands, God does so in the framework of a brit, a relationship: “And I will establish my brit with you, and you will come into the ark…” (Breishit, 6:28), and again when Noah and his family exit the ark (Breishit, 9:6, 9, 11):
שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱ – לֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃
וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃
וְהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
|One who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled, because in the image of God God made man … And I, behold I will establish my brit with you and with your seed after you … And I will establish my brit with you and no more will all flesh be destroyed from the waters of a flood, and there will no longer be a flood to destroy the land|
While the brit with Noah relates to the protection of the human species and the world and not to the keeping of mitzvot per se, the mitzvot are, nevertheless, given in the context of this committed relationship and are not merely dictated unilaterally from the all-powerful Lawgiver.
The significance and specificity of brit deepens when God commands Avraham to inscribe in his flesh the sign of the brit and commands him in the brit milah. Here, the purpose of the brit is not merely the survival of species but “an everlasting brit between Me and you, and between your children after you for all generations, to be to you as a God and to your children after you” (Breishit, 17:7). Here, the brit establishes the very relationship between God and the children of Avraham. And now, in Parashat Yitro, the brit deepens even further. With this brit, God chooses the nation of Bnei Yisrael, and our part is not simply one of identity. Rather, we agree to live up to a code of standards, to do “all the words and all the laws.”
What is the difference between being commanded unilaterally and accepting the commands as part of a brit? It is the difference between being a child and being an adult. Adam and Chava in Gan Eden were like children; they had no real, mature opinions of their own, no real values of their own, and no autonomy. They were unilaterally commanded, and all that was asked of them was obedience. All they could do to assert their autonomy was rebel, to refuse to follow God’s command. Only once they rebelled and were kicked out of Gan Eden, out of the parental home, did they become autonomous beings able to make their own value judgments: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Now, in the post-Edenic world, to reenter a relationship with God we must do so as adults. To be commanded and to follow are not enough. We must bring the entirety of our will, our personality, our values, and our autonomy willingly and freely into a relationship with God. God wants more than followers; God wants partners.
This is a religion of adulthood, not of blind faith and obedience. It is not only one of Commander and commanded, but of parties in a brit. It is a religion in which, through our free acceptance of the mitzvot and our role in interpreting and applying them, in the very enterprise of Torah she’b’al peh, the Oral Torah, we are partners with God. Only parties to a brit can be both deeply and passionately committed to its full observance and at the same time say, “Why should our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son?” (Bamidbar, 27:3), or, “Why should we be excluded from bringing God’s sacrifice in its appointed time together with Bnei Yisrael?” (Bamidbar, 9:7). To be in a bilateral relationship is to be fully committed to participating with the totality of one’s personality, without silencing the part of one’s soul that asks, “How does this make sense? How is this just?” At the same time, to be a party to a brit is to accept that one must work to find answers within the context of the brit.
To be a party to a brit also means that we do not discharge our obligation simply by doing what is commanded of us. If we are truly partners, then we must internalize the commitments and values of the brit; we must follow the na’aseh (we will do) with the nishma (we will listen, and internalize). We must share and participate in the brit, in its visions and its goals. We must see ourselves as partnering with God in all aspects of our lives, and we must work to bring the world to a better place, to a fuller realization of the values and vision of the Torah and the brit.
In many ways, we have largely abdicated these responsibilities of brit and regressed to living a religion of mere commadedness, living our religious lives as children rather than adults. We find ourselves afraid to ask the questions that deeply trouble us, and if we do, we are often not willing to put in the hard work required to find answers within Torah, to find answers while holding fast to the brit. We don’t want to be troubled to do more than keep the mitzvot; we don’t want to be told that we need to bring Torah values into our day-to-day (secular) life; and we certainly don’t want to accept the responsibility of internalizing a Torah vision within our own, defining our ambitions and our place in the world on the basis of such a brit. Perhaps we are afraid that this would require a total submerging of our own identity, but that is not the nature of a brit. The true brit is a fusing of the fullness of our own personality with the demands, commands, and vision of God and Torah. This is our challenge. Will we continue living the religion of Gan Eden, of simple commadedness, or will we be able to face the challenge of living the religious life of an adult, the religious life of the Torah of Har Sinai, the Torah of a brit?