Right now, we are in the midst of a seven-week journey that began on Pesach and will end on Shavuot.
There are 38 days left on our trek from Egypt to Sinai, where we will receive our instructions as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In the words of Isaiah, the task we received at Sinai was to “unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go freeâ€¦; to share [our] bread with the hungryâ€¦, [and] when you see the naked, to clothe himâ€¦.”
How sad it is that too many of us prefer not to fully comprehend the meaning of those words.
This Shabbat, in synagogues across the world, we receive a condensed version of what those words mean, and what the task is that we were given. That task is why we were enslaved in the first place, and why we were freed. It is why the sea parted on the seventh day, and why the journey to the Land of Promise had to begin at Sinai, not in Egypt.
The alien seer Balaam called us “a people apart,” and he was correct. We are a people apart, but not because of our rituals. The body of law we were given at Sinai is what sets us apart, that and the reason for that Law: to create a world in which all are equal, a world that is ruled by the principles of justice, equity, and mercy.
That world did not exist before the Torah was given. In the ancient world, the haves always were more important than the have-nots, and they were considered more valuable.
For example, in the Code of Hammurabi, if someone accidentally killed a person higher up on the societal pecking order, that person’s relatives had the right to kill two members of the accidental murderer’s family.
Blood vengeance, after all, was accepted in the ancient world. Because this was too much a part of accepted practice 3,500 years ago, the Torah did not challenge it directly. Instead, it made blood vengeance virtually impossible by creating the concept of the city of refuge (first mentioned at Sinai [see Exodus 21:13] and elaborated on elsewhere, especially in Numbers 35). Then it also imposed a trial and set rules of evidence that included the requirement that no one could be convicted of a capital crime without the testimony of at least two qualified eyewitnesses (see Deuteronomy 17:6).
The Code of Hammurabi, however, went beyond simple blood vengeance. Law No. 210 states that if a man strikes a freeborn woman and she dies, the man’s daughter is put to death. Law No. 230 states that if a poorly constructed building collapses, killing the owner’s son, “the son of the builder shall be put to death.”
This the Torah did address directly. “Parents shall not be put to death for children,” it declared, “nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (See Deuteronomy 24:16.)
Justice, equity, mercy.
Just as there is no hierarchical nature to the society God’s “kingdom of priests” was tasked to create, so there also was no hierarchy of law. This is made clear in Leviticus 19, where no distinction is made between our obligations to God and our obligations to other people, and even to the world around us.
Reverence for parents is followed by Shabbat observance; is followed by a ban on idol worship; is followed by rules about a voluntary sacrifice; is followed by laws about what we owe to the poor and the stranger; is followed by a rule against misusing God’s Name to defraud others; is followed by a prohibition against fraud itself; is followed by a prohibition against robbery; is followed by a requirement to pay laborers in a timely fashion; is followed by laws about not speaking ill of people, and not leading them astray; is followed by rules requiring fair and equal treatment under the law; and so on.
At Sinai, when we accepted God’s assignment as His “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” we agreed to obey God’s mitzvot, period. Whatever classification people gave to each mitzvah was irrelevant. All the mitzvot were God’s mitzvot; all had to be observed equally.
This message, however, seems to have escaped us – or, perhaps more accurately, we allowed it to escape us. We adopt the values of the society around us rather than try to reform those values to meet the Torah’s requirement.
One example should suffice: Last year, 49 million Americans were considered food insecure, meaning that at one point or another during the year they were unable to put food on their tables. That is almost one in every six people living in arguably the richest country in the world.
Yet the U.S. Congress recently voted to further cut food aid programs to these people. Where is our outrage? As God’s “kingdom of priests,” we should be leading massive protests, yet for the most part we are silent.
What is the point of journeying from Egypt to Sinai if not that?