By Allan Myers
Rabbi Mimi Feigelson once explained to me how much she agreed with the point of view of one of the modern commentators on the Torah. The only explanation she could find for their empathy was… that they were standing next to each other at Sinai.
This idea that “we were all at Sinai” comes from this week’s sedra. Moses relates God’s words, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord, our God, and with those who are not with us here this day”.
How can a contract made so many years ago still be binding on us?
Abarvanel explains that the first Covenant was made when the people came out of Egypt. We know that, at that time, all the people accepted the Covenant, saying “na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear” – meaning that they would use their bodies, which they had formerly used as slaves, in the service of God.
The second Covenant was made later to complement the first and involved the right to live in Eretz Israel. We know that the people only had the right to dwell in the land, not to own it, because God says in Sedra B’Har Sinai, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine”. Therefore the rabbis say that all of us, those who were at Sinai and those who were not, are bound by both Covenants, because they represent two different parts of the same package.
The idea of a covenant between a ruler and his people is an old Middle Eastern idea. If the nation failed to keep the covenant, it would forfeit the ruler’s protection. In Jewish terms, although the Covenant exists between God and his people, an individual who breaks his part of the covenant has to undergo Teshuvah – he, rather than the whole nation, has to decide to change.
The idea of Teshuvah is unique because in nature things normally go forward. On my computer however, I have a wonderful program called Go Back. If you’ve made a mistake you can activate Go Back and return to the position you were in before the mistake was made. My computer does Teshuvah! The only problem is I don’t know how to work the program. Maybe it’s the same on Yom Kippur. We have acquired this wonderful program called Teshuvah but we don’t know how to use it.
So, we were all at Sinai. We were all party to the two-fold Covenant – that in return for being freed from physical slavery we will use our bodies in the service of God, and in return for being freed from spiritual slavery, we will adhere to the laws of the Torah.
Coming up in the next week will be a collective activity in which we all try desperately to access and run the program which enables us to embark on our Teshuva. We all know the necessity for this activity because we were all standing at Sinai. We may not have been standing next to the person we are sitting next to today – maybe some of us were – but we all shared that experience so, as a community, we can engage in that activity together and all pull in the same direction.
Allan Myers is a chartered accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988, and completed a degree at Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies