- Weekly D'var Torah
An Identity Rooted in Moral Aspiration
There are a few times in the Torah where God makes a formal agreement with mankind. The first, at the very start of the Jewish story, leads to the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant, in which God promises to Avram Avenu:
“I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you obeyed My command.”
It’s a fascinating, unilateral contract, because it required no additional action on our part. For the descendants of Abraham—B’nai Yisrael, the Sons of Israel—God’s promise was unconditional and unrequited. Simply by belonging, by being one of the family (what we might jokingly refer to these days as “being an MOT”), the Jews received God’s blessing. There were no requirements, no commandments to follow, no obligations, moral imperative to act in a particular way other than survival and continuity (and as if to underscore that point, every one of the characters we meet along the way for the rest of Genesis is a flawed moral actor).
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, everything changes. With the revelation of the ten commandments, our very identity changes in a subtle but important way, because the new Mosaic covenant introduces the most powerful word in the Torah—the word “if.”
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians … Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.”
With the introduction of that short word, suddenly our identity as Jews becomes conditional. From this point on, being Jewish was something you did, not just something you were. And it’s no accident that this occurs in the context of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, because at the core of God’s condition was what Rabbi Eddie Feinstein refers to as “an ethic of empathy: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ … Exodus Judaism is an identity rooted in moral aspiration, a social vision for the world. To be a Jew,” Rabbi Feinstein wrote, “is to build a world where no human being is ever relegated to invisibility.”
This is at the heart of the covenant God made with Moses at Sinai—and at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.