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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

How Covenant Frames Obligations

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 10, 2012)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mitzvot, Sefer Shemot, Torah, Yitro

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After crossing the Red Sea, seeing the drowning of the Egyptians, experiencing the first hardships of the desert, and receiving the quail and the manna from God, the Children of Israel have finally arrived at their first destination, Mt. Sinai. While the Land of Israel still awaits, their initial demand to leave Egypt was to worship God, and that worship takes place here, in the desert, at the foot of Har Sinai: “When you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” (Shemot 3:12).

The Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai was an event of giluy Shekina, of theophany, of a direct revelation of the Divine. God – speaking metaphorically- descended from heaven and came down to earth: “For on the third day, God will descend – in the sight of the entire people – onto Har Sinai” (19:11). Of course, some distance between the Divine and the human, between the transcendent and the physical, remained. As the Gemara in Sukkah puts it: “The Shekina never descended to earth lower than 10 handbreadths” (Sukkah 5a). The gap between the Divine and the human could never be fully bridged, direct encounter was not possible, but this was the closest it would ever get. The revelation of the Divine on Har Sinai was an event never to be repeated. The people would never encounter God again as they had on that day.

This, then, would seem to be the worship that they were heading towards: an intense encounter with the Divine, followed -as we read at the end of Parshat Mishpatim – with the offering of sacrifices. But was this really the point? If it were all about the Divine-human encounter, then why did it take the form of the declaration of the Ten Commandments? In fact, in God’s preparing Moshe for this event, the theophany is not the focus, mitzvot are: “Now, if you will listen well to My voice and observe all My commandments, then shall be to Me a treasured nation… And the entire people responded as one, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said we will do.'” (19:5, 8). The primary purpose of coming to Har Sinai is not to encounter God, but to receive the Torah. The theophany was necessary so that “the people may listen when I speak to you (Moshe), and so that they will have faith in you forever.” (19:9). God revealed Godself so that we would know that it was God who had issued the commandments, that we would feel their binding force, that we would know that we were obligated and act on that knowledge. It was so that we would be and know that we were mitzuveh, commanded.

Perhaps it is something more than that. To just do the mitzvot is not the entire goal. The Ten Commandments starts with a theological declaration: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.” (20:2). The mitzvot flow from that first statement, and flow in a particular way. God is not described here as the God who created Heaven and Earth. Such a God can command, and we will be bound, but there will be no intimate connection. To the degree that there would be any relationship, it would be on of monarch and subject. In such a case, our observance of the mitzvot will be framed as obligation and nothing more – we do as we have been told.

Not so regarding the God who took us out of Egypt. Having been redeemed by God, we entered into a special relationship with God, we became God’s people. When this God commands us, we are bound not only because we are commanded, but also because of our relationship, and it is the performance of the mitzvot that express and sustain that relationship.

When a husband does the dishes or takes out the garbage, even unasked, he is doing this not because he is obligated or commanded, but because such actions are an expression of his relationship to his wife, and such acts nurture and sustain the relationship.

We observe the mitzvot because we were commanded, but not just because we were commanded. We also observe them because they connect us to God. The mitzvot are empty when there is no connection, but neither are they just means to an end. The goal is not the connection, and we do not keep the mitzvot in order that we may have a relationship with God. Rather, the mitzvot – the way we live every moment of our lives – is the essence of the relationship itself.

There is a problem if we overly focus on the experiential dimension – the emotional, psychological or religious intensity that such connection can bring. If this is our focus, we will always be trying to recapture the same feeling as the “first time,” and it will reduce our relationship to that feeling, that experience. And is this truly what the relationship is about? This feeling? Isn’t about how we act, how we live our lives? A hyper-focus on the experiential can make us lose sight of the totality of the relationship. It can pervert it, narrowing its meaning; it can turn the emotional or religious experience into a thing of ultimate meaning, into idolatry.

It is thus that immediately after receiving the Torah and experiencing the theophany that the Children of Israel are not commanded to build the Tabernacle. That structure is a structure which will be – as Ramban describes it – a portable Mount Sinai; it is a structure that will allow us to recapture, even if only slightly, the Sinaitic encounter. But the command for that structure will come later. The first response to the Divine-human encounter is not to recreate it, but to avoid its potential pitfalls:

God said to Moshe, so shall you say to the Children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heaven. You shall not make [representations of] Me. Gods of gold and gods of silver you shall not make for yourselves. (20:19-20).

Do not focus on recapturing that encounter, God is saying. Do not try to overly concretize that experience. If you do, it will become an idol. In you attempt to capture this ephemeral thing, you will turn Me into something lesser than who I am. We will continue to have encounters, You and I, says God, but they will not be like the first time. And these encounters will not require a specific place or a specific structure: “… In every place where I will call My name, I will come to you and bless you” (20:22).

Yes, God is saying, our relationship is of critical importance, and it must and will continue, but in ways that transcend this location, this experience. It must be a relationship that is the very warp and woof of your life. And thus, parshat Yitro is not followed by parshat Terumah, the parsha of the Mishkan, but by parshat Mishpatim, the parsha of the laws. This is how our relationship with God is lived.

Tellingly, parshat Mishpatim ends with the Children of Israel entering into a brit, a covenant with God, that is the commitment to these laws. To do the laws with no relationship to God reduces them to hollow observance. One is doing one’s obligation, but no more, and the context of brit is completely forgotten. But to pursue the relationship at its experiential level with disregard for the laws is to misunderstand the very nature of the relationship. Our relationship with God means nothing, or at least very little, when it does not translate into action. Only when we follow Yitro with Mishpatim, do we live a life in which our relationship with God becomes real, where our actions are its very expression and its sustenance. And only when we Yitro precedes Mishpatim do we live a life in which our observance is no longer mechanical, but is part of a brit, part of a true, enduring and covenantal relationship.