When we delve into our historical existence we come to an important realization regarding our Weltanschauung. The Torah relates that the Holy One concluded two Covenants with Israel. One Covenant was made in Egypt. “And I shall take you unto Me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Exodus 6:7). The second Covenant was at Mount Sinai. “And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant … and he said: ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord made with you in agreement with all these words’” (Exodus 24:7-8). (The third Covenant, in the Book of Deuteronomy (28:69), is identical in content and purpose to the Covenant of Sinai.)9 What is the essence of these two Covenants? It appears to me that this question was already answered at the beginning of our essay. Just as Judaism distinguished fate from destiny in the realm of personal individuality, so it also differentiated between these two concepts in the sphere of our national-historical existence. The individual is tethered to his nation with bonds of fate and chains of destiny. In accordance with this postulate, one can say that the Covenant of Egypt was a Covenant of Fate, and the Covenant of Sinai was one of destiny.
What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies in the life of the nation, as it does in the life of the individual, an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. The individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it is impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality. The environment expels the Jew who flees from the presence of God, so that he is awakened from his slumber, like Jonah the prophet, who awoke to the voice of the ship’s captain demanding to know his personal national- religious identity.
The historical loneliness of the Jew percolates from a feeling of compulsive fate. He is as alone in his life on earth as in his death. The concept of kever yisrael emphasizes the Jew’s strange detachment from the world. Sociologists and psychologists may say what they wish about the inexplicable isolation of the Jew. Their explanations are nothing more than barren speculation, incapable of rationally describing the phenomenon. Jewish separateness belongs to the framework of the Covenant of Fate that was concluded in Egypt. In truth, Judaism and withdrawal from the world are synonymous. Even before the exile in Egypt, separateness descended upon our world with the appearance of the first Jew, our father Abraham. Abraham the Hebrew (ivri) lived apart. “The whole world was on one side (ever), and he on the other side” (Bereshit Rabbah 42:8). Balaam, when he gazed upon the Israelite camp, understood the wonder of the experience of Jewish separateness and proclaimed with amazement: “They are a nation dwelling alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Even if a Jew reaches the pinnacle of social and political accomplishment, he will not be able to free himself from the chains of isolation. Paradoxical fate watches over the isolation and uniqueness of the Jew, despite his apparent integration into his non-Jewish environment. Even people of power and authority, such as Joseph, the regent of Egypt, was separated from Egyptian society and remained alone in his tent. “And they served him [Joseph] by himself … and for the Egyptians … by themselves.” (Genesis 43:32). (Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, because it was a taboo for them). Before his death Joseph pleaded with his brothers, “When God will surely remember you and bring you out of this land, you shall carry up my bones from here” (Genesis 50:25). For despite my greatness and glory I am tied to you and your existence both in life and in death. This singular, inexplicable phenomenon of the individual clinging to the community and feeling alienated from the outside world was forged and formed in Egypt. There Israel was elevated to the status of a nation in the sense of a unity10 from which arises uniqueness as well .The awareness of the Fate Covenant in all of its manifestations is an integral part of our historical-metaphysical essence.
When the exclusive fate-driven individual stands face to face with God, he encounters the God of the Jews, who is revealed to man by the experience of loneliness and from the inexorability of existence — from the fate awareness that overcomes and subjugates man. He is the Almighty who does not wait for the supplications of man and his voluntary summons. He imposes His sovereignty upon him against his will. A Jew cannot banish the God of the Jews from his world. Even if he desecrates his Shabbat, defiles his table and his bed, and tries to deny his identity, he will not escape the dominion of the God of the Jews, which follows him like a shadow. So long as a person’s physiognomy testifies to his birth, so long as Jewish blood flows in his veins, and so long as his flesh is Jewish, he is compelled to serve the God of the Hebrews. There is no counsel or tactic that can oppose Him. Even if the Jew who spurns his people should soar to the farthest heavens, from there the hand of the God of the Hebrews shall reach him. Where shall the Jew go to flee the God of the Hebrews and where can he escape from His presence?
And they said: The God of the Hebrews has revealed Himself to us. Please allow us to take a three days’ journey into the desert, and we shall deliver sacrifices unto God lest he smite us with pestilence or sword. —Exodus 5:3.
Failure to cleave to the commands of the God of the Hebrews results in punishment and the destruction of existence.
The Covenant of Fate is also expressed in positive categories that stem from the awareness of shared fate. There are four facets to this rare state of mind.
First, the awareness of shared fate appears as that of shared experience. We are all in the realm of a shared fate that binds together the different strata of the nation and does not discriminate between classes and individuals. Fate does not distinguish between nobility and commonfolk, between rich and poor, between a prince dressed in royal purple velvet and a poor man who goes begging from door to door, between a pious Jew and an assimilationist. Even though we may speak a mix of different languages, even if we are citizens of different lands, even if we look different (one being short and black, the other tall and blond), even if we live in different economic systems and under different living conditions (the one living in a royal palace, the other in a humble cave), we have but one fate. When the Jew in the cave is attacked, the security of the Jew standing in the courtyard of the king is jeopardized. “Do not think in your soul that you, from all the Jews [will escape and], shall flee to the palace of the king” (Esther 4:13). Queen Esther robed in majesty and Mordechai wearing sackcloth were situated in the same historical nexus. “All Israel are bound together (haverim)” (TB Sotah 37a). We are all persecuted, or we are all saved together.
Second, the awareness of shared historical experience leads to the experience of shared suffering. A feeling of empathy is a basic fact in the consciousness of shared Jewish fate. The suffering of one segment of the nation is the lot of the entire community. The scattered and separated people mourns and is consoled together. Prayer, the cry, and the consolation were formulated, as I emphasized above, in the plural. Supplications that emerge from the depths of travail are not confined to the suffering and affliction of the groaning individual. They encompass the needs of the entire community. When there is a sick person in one’s house, one prays not only for that person but for all the sick of Israel. When one enters the house of a mourner to comfort him and to wipe the tear from the bereaved’s sad face, he directs his words of condolence to “all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”B The slightest disturbance in the state of an individual or a sector of the people should trouble all segments of the nation throughout their dispersion. It is forbidden and it is impossible for the individual to isolate himself from his fellow and not participate in his suffering. If the assumption of shared historical experience is accurate, then shared suffering is its direct corollary.
One of the great preachers of the last generation put it well when he likened the people of Israel to the two-headed son about whom it was asked in the Talmud whether he would, as a dual-personality, take two shares of his familial inheritance or only one portion.11 So too one may ask: Has the dispersal of the nation in the Diaspora, and its taking root in different surroundings, caused its spiritual disintegration, or has the unity of the people not been lost despite the fact it has grown many heads and speaks many languages, with different customs and diverse ways of life? In a word, is the Jewish Diaspora one or not? The answer, continued the preacher, to the question of the unity of the people is identical with the decision rendered in the beth midrashc to the litigant who asked about the status of the two-headed heir. Let them pour boiling water on the head of the one, said the Rabbi, and let us see the other’s reaction. If the other screams in pain, then the two comprise one personality, and they shall receive one share of the inheritance. However, if the second does not feel the suffering of the first, then they are two individuals enfolded in one body, and they shall receive two shares of the estate.
With respect to the unity of the nation as well, one must firmly establish that so long as there is shared suffering, in the sense of “I am with him in his distress” (Psalms 91:15), there is unity. If the Jew, on whom Providence has shined Its countenance, and who believes that with respect to himself the sharpness of hatred has been removed, and estrangement from his surroundings has passed, nevertheless still feels the distress of the nation and the burden of its fate/existence, then his bond to the nation has not been severed. If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris or London must scream, and by feeling the pain, shows himself loyal to the nation. The breakup of the people and the constriction of its self-image are the result of a lack of empathy.
Third, shared suffering is expressed in a feeling of shared obligation and responsibility. When the children of Israel left Egypt, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, pleaded before God, and said: “Lord, God of Hosts of all flesh, shall one man sin and You direct divine wrath at the entire congregation?” (Numbers 16:22).This prayer accomplished that which the “shepherds of Israel” (Ezekiel 34:2) sought. The Holy One agreed with their action and only punished Korah and his cohorts. However, God only demonstrated this loving-kindness momentarily. Forever after, the “I” is ensnared in the sin of his fellow, if he had it within his power to reprimand, admonish, and bring his neighbor to repentance. The people of Israel have a collective responsibility, both halakhic and moral, for one another. The discrete units coalesce into a single halakhic-moral unity, with one all-encompassing and normative conscience and consciousness. The halakhah has already decreed that “all Jews are sureties for one another” (TB Shavu’ot 39a), such that one who has already fulfilled his personal mitzvah is not considered fully absolved thereby and may therefore fulfill the obligation on behalf of others who have not as yet done so. The “I” is not exempt from its obligation so long as his neighbor has not fulfilled that which is incumbent upon him. There is a special covenant of mutual responsibility among the children of Israel. This covenant is expressed in the blessings and imprecations pronounced on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal (Deuteronomy 11:29). It is based upon the notion of peoplehood revealed to Moses in Egypt. Out of this concept grew the covenant of mutual obligation. Moses, the dean of all prophets, in relating this covenant of mutual obligation, emphasized: “For that He may establish you today unto Him as a people, and He shall be unto you as a God” (Deuteronomy 29:12). He thus returned to the formulation of the Covenant of Egypt. “And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). Here the notion of shared fate was elevated from the plane of communal-political suffering to that of halakhic and moral responsibility. We are all sureties for one another, as it is said: “And the revelations belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:28).12
Sharing of responsibility is not simply a halakhic-speculative notion, but a central fact in the history of Israel’s relations with other nations. Our neighbors perpetually blame us for the transgressions of our co-religionists, and they turn the Talmud’s rhetorical question of, “[If] Tobias sins; should Zigud be whipped?” (TB Pesahim 113b), into an everyday reality that no one questions. The identification of the activities of the individual with the deeds of the nation is a fundamental truth of the history of our people. Our enemies do not allow the individual Jew to remain alone in his own confines. They take him out of his own four cubits into the public domain and there harshly criticize the [entire] community because of him. This “standard” is only employed in relation to Israel and not with respect to other nations. No one has yet accused a Russian or a Chinese individual of being an agent of international communism and then held him liable, by virtue of his national origin, for the nations that lead the communist regime and aspire to subjugate the world under this cruel order. In contrast to this logical and humane approach to the members of other nations, the Jewish people as a whole is slandered, because of a handful of Jewish apostates, [with the allegation] that it is sympathetic to communism. We have yet to be absolved from this libel. Once again, the explanations of the experts for this phenomenon are not satisfactory. It makes no difference whether the causes are found in the realm of psychopathology or in the sphere of social history. Scientific classification is beside the point; the phenomenon remains obscure and inaccessible. We Orthodox Jews have one solution to this riddle: the hand of the Covenant of Fate, which was concluded in Egypt on the basis of the absolute uniqueness of the nation, is revealed amidst such an unintelligible reality.
The commandment to sanctify God’s Name and the prohibition against desecrating it13 are clear in light of the principle of shared responsibility and obligation. The activity of the individual is debited to the account of the many. Every wrong committed by an individual stains the name of Israel throughout the world. The individual is responsible not only for his own conscience but also for the collective conscience of the nation. If he conducts himself properly, he has sanctified the name of the nation and the name of the God of Israel; if he has sinned, he causes shame to befall the nation and desecrates its God.
Fourth, shared experience is expressed by cooperation. The obligation to perform acts of charity (tzedakah) and loving-kindness (hesed) is derived from the experience of unity that is so all-pervading and encompassing. When the Torah deals with these precepts it uses the term “brother” rather than “friend.”
"And if your brother shall become impoverished … you shall support him … and he shall live among you".
—Leviticus 25:35 (emphasis added).
"Do not harden your heart, and do not shut your hand against your needy brother … open your hand to your poor and destitute brother in your land."
—Deuteronomy 15:7, 11 (emphasis added)
Confrontation with the fateful reality of the nation in all of its strangeness instills the Jew with his common awareness in the realm of social activism. The shared situation of all Jews, whether in the objective realm, as an event, or in the subjective realm, as suffering, taps the sources in the individual’s soul for loving-kindness and pity for his brethren, who are in trouble and that in a roundabout way touches him as well. Maimonides formulated this idea in his laconic but content-filled manner.
All Jews and those attached to them are like brothers, as it is said, “You are sons to the Lord your God” (Deut. 14:1), and if a brother will not show mercy to his brother, then who will have mercy on him? And to whom can the poor of Israel look for help — to those other nations who hate and persecute? They can look for help only to their brethren.14, D
From [both] the midst of a heritage which is compulsive and fateful and a terrible aloneness which are the source of the unity of the nation, issues forth the attribute of loving-kindness which summons and drives the fateful collective to imbue their unity with positive content by means of the constant participation in events, suffering, consciousness and acts of mutual assistance. The isolated Jew finds his solace in his active adhesion to the whole and by tearing down barriers of egotistical-separatist existence, and by joining his neighbors. The oppressive experience of fate finds its connection in the coalescing of individual personal experiences into the new entity called a nation. The obligation of love for another person emanates from the self-awareness of the people of fate, which is alone and perplexed by its uniqueness. For this was the Covenant of Egypt concluded.