The Covenants of Sinai and Egypt ברית-סיני וברית-מצרים
1 א

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.‎

2 ב

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.‎

3 ג

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.‎

4 ד

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?‎

5 ה

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.‎

6 ו

Failure to cleave to the commands of the God of the Hebrews results in punishment and ‎the ‎destruction of existence.‎

7 ז

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.‎

8 ח

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.‎

9 ט

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.‎

10 י

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.‎

11 יא

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.‎

12 יב

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

13 יג

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.‎

14 יד

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.‎

15 טו

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.”‎

16 טז

"And if your brother shall become impoverished … you shall support him … and he shall live among ‎you".
—Leviticus 25:35 (emphasis added).‎

17 יז

"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)‎

18 יח

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.‎

19 יט

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

20 כ

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.‎