5761 - #31


In examining the events of Sinai, what is often overlooked are the characteristics of the recipient of Torah, i.e. the Jewish People. Sinai was not simply the imposition of a set of commands upon a nation. As the nation was asked to accept the Torah, the nation was called upon to render a decision1 and, effectively, become a participant in the communication of Torah. As such Torah must be understood within the context of this relationship and the characteristics of the participants. In terms of God, this is fully recognized and investigated; thus there is much discussion on the nature of God in connection to Torah. For example, establishing the goodness of God2 is an important factor in understanding the objective of Torah, i.e. that it is beneficial. A similar determination in connection to the recipient is also necessary to fully understand the nature and objective of Torah.
An investigation of the characteristics of the recipient of Torah, obviously, can involve many factors and promote much discussion. For the purposes of this Insight, we will introduce simply one. The Torah was not given to individuals or even a group of individuals; the Torah was given to a nation. This recognition regarding the recipient of Torah can greatly affect our understanding of the workings of Torah.
Three verses can be quoted to support the contention that the nationhood of Israel is important to the Sinai event. Shemot 19:6 declares that the purpose of Torah is to develop a mamlechet kohanim and goi kadosh, “a kingdom of priests and holy nation”. Torah is defined in terms of the nation. Shemot 19:8 states that, in response to God’s commands, the nation responded yachdav, together, that they would do. Shemot 24:3 presents a similar sentiment in declaring that the nation, in this case, responded kol echad, with one voice. In both these cases, the oneness of the nation is deemed to be significant. In the latter verse, Ibn Ezra indicates that this is further emphasized by the use of the singular verb, implying that the nation acted like one person. A nation is not simply a group of individuals but rather reflects a gestalt, a grouping that is greater than the sum of its parts. These verses are not simply indicating a meeting of the minds by individuals in regard to Torah although that is also implied.
3 It is the collective unity of the nation of Israel that is the recipient of Torah.
Meshech Chochma, Shemot 19:8 explains that inherently all of Torah cannot be observed by one individual. Certain commandments only apply to kohanim, others only to a king, others only to levi’im, others only to property holders. The entirety of Torah can only exist within corporate Israel and it is within the context of our mutual responsibility for each other
4 that we achieve the totality of Torah. He further explains that the nation of Israel must be seen as one being. Just as a human being has different body parts, each performing their own specific task within the body, each individual within Israel must see himself/herself as part of the greater whole, each performing his/her specific function within the context of the whole.5 Perceiving the nation of Israel as the recipient of Torah, thus, is most significant. If the entirety of Torah can only be achieved through the nation, the purpose of Torah must be national. Torah indeed affects the individual but it must also be perceived as affecting the nation as a nation. Torah must be understood within the context of nationhood.
On the surface this seems to be a simple idea. Clearly Torah talks to the nation. It establishes the office of king, orders the establishment of a judiciary and, furthermore, declares the significance of the land upon which this nation is to dwell. The significance of this concept, however, cannot be overlooked. Classic religious definitions are challenged by this reality. By definition, Torah becomes in part a political and economic document. The “this world” importance of Torah is reinforced and emphasized when we understand this document within the context of nationhood. It is within the parameters of nationhood including the realms of statehood and society that we achieve the full goals intended by Torah.
Many individuals declare a distinction between the religious and the secular. The extent that Torah deals with realms that most consider to be secular challenges this distinction. For many, though, the way they reconcile Torah’s involvement in the secular is by defining the secular in classical religious tones. The intrusion of Torah into the monarchy is thus seen, for example, in the context of the religious and, by extension, the Mashiach, a king from the Davidic line, is defined in terms of his religious leadership. The recognition of the significance of nationhood within the context of Torah not only declares that Torah deals with the secular but, furthermore, that Torah deals with the secular in the context of the secular. Secular considerations do not gain Torah’s significance by changing into classical religious axioms. Secular considerations gain Torah’s significance because the Torah declares that the secular axioms necessary for dealing with these issues are also part of the context of God’s world. Developing the proper political and economic structure, promoting the advancement of society, even the consideration of transport needs
6 are all part of the realm of Torah and part of the growth mechanism of the individual within the context of this world and Torah’s objective.
The human being is not intended to live alone. The establishment of the collective, of a society, is part of the necessity of human life. The purpose of this world is to be the arena for the development of the human being and, thus, that which is necessary for the human being in this world must be part of what is necessary for his/her development. It is within the context of nationhood that the human being achieves his/her goal and thus it is the realm of Torah.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See T.B. Shabbat 88a. See, further, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Kol Ram 3:373.

2 See, for example, Mechilta, Shemot 20:2.

3 See Mechilta, Shemot 19:8.

4 kol Yisrael areivin zeh b’zeh, “all of Israel are guarantors one for the other.” See T.B. Shevuot 39a.

5 Interestingly, the Meshech Chochma adds that still a connection to the entirety of Torah can be achieved by the individual through learning as one studies the entire corpus of Torah thought.

6 See, for example, Mishneh Shekalim 1:1.

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