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The Jewish People and the Uniqueness of the Revelation at Sinai

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There are some ‘interesting’ fallacies concerning Judaism that seem to permeate through the understanding of the general population, both Jewish and non-Jewish. For example, Avraham Avinu is often described as the first monotheist. The Bible itself clearly points to the problem with that assertion; what about Adam, Chava, Noach? They were all monotheists who pre-dated Avraham. In addition, Jewish sources clearly assert the existence of other monotheists even at the time of Avraham such as Malkitzedek the king of Shalem mentioned in Bereishit 14:18 (see, interestingly, Rashi's comment on that verse) amongst others.
What then was the true distinguishing mark of our great forefather? One was that he was the first person to discover God, that is he came to the realization of the Existence of One God on his own without being taught this truth. His other distinguishing characteristic, which actually seems to be the more significant one, was that he did not just rest in his self-recognition of the truth of the One God but that he extended himself to share this truth with others.
The true knowledge of the Existence of the One God was a truth that would benefit all who acquired it and Avraham, being the caring person that he was, wished to share it with all humanity. His extreme efforts in this regard -- his caring for all -- are what truly distinguished him. But getting back to our original starting point – how many people actually know this?
Another example of one of these fallacies concerns the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments. While it is clear that the Divine Revelation at Sinai was specifically in the presence of the Jewish People, the general understanding of the world is that the message was universal, that the Ten Commandments were intended to be a moral guide for all humanity. Pursuant to traditional Jewish thought, this is actually incorrect. First, I should perhaps mention that the actual phrase in Hebrew which describes God’s initial words at Sinai is the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings. Within these sentences, one will really find more than ten commandments.
More significantly for our discussion, though, would be the recognition that these statements were actually directed solely to the Jewish People. The ‘Ten Commandments’, from a traditional Jewish perspective, were never meant to be applied universally. For example, the observance of Shabbat is specifically to be followed solely by Jews. Sinai was actually a specific Jewish event.
This is not to say, however, that there is no universal dimension to Sinai or, more significantly, to Judaism. Traditional Judaism does actually believe in a universal Divine moral/ethical code that applies to all humanity; this is the Seven Laws of Noach or the Noachide Code. There is also a connection between this Code and Sinai in that, pursuant to the understanding of Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11), this Code was also reiterated in the overall Revelation at Sinai (although these rules were already presented to Noach and prior to that, to the extent possible, to Adam).
Nonetheless, Sinai should really be recognized as a specific Jewish event – which raises the question of why this distinctiveness of the Jews.
We cannot respond herein to the deep and extensive questions of why God distinguished a specific nation within humanity and why it was specifically the Jewish nation that was so distinguished. The further question of the actual nature of this distinction is also one that cannot be properly dealt with herein. Still, I would like to identify a simple aspect of this distinction which may have value in furthering our appreciation of the forthcoming holiday of Shavuot, the day on which we celebrate the giving and accepting of the Torah – a day referred to under the rubric of Kabbalat HaTorah [acceptance of the Torah] and as Zman Matan Torateinu [the time of the giving of our Torah].
The most obvious distinction between Jew and non-Jew in regard to moral/ethical obligation is, of course, that the Jewish People are subject to the Torah system of 613 mitzvot [commandments] while the rest of humanity is subject to the Noachide Code system of 7 mitzvot. We might wish to note, though, that this simple aspect of distinction is not exactly as one might perceive it. The apparent numerical distinction is not really as vast as one may at first think for the numerical categorization process for mitzvot is actually different between the two systems.
Applying the Torah categorization methodology to the Noachide Code would actually yield many more mitzvot than just 7. For this and other reasons, the distance between the Noachide Code and Halacha (Torah law) may not be as extreme as one would envision from the comparison of the numbers 613 and 7. This does not take away, though, from the clear reality that the Noachide Code and its obligations are different, even vastly so.
On this issue of the difference in ethics between the Noachide Code and Halacha, even in areas where, on the surface, we would think the law to be similar, please see Is There A Distinctive Jewish Ethical Perspective?
Of specific interest to us is a further distinction between the two systems in regard to the nature of their authority.  We do not speak of the giving and/or receiving of the Noachide Code by humanity. This is because the Noachide Code arises from the flow of law and political/governmental obligation. In the language of the sources, the force of God’s command is similar to the edict of a king upon his nation.  As such, there was no need for humanity to accept the Noachide Code. They were commanded as subjects of God in His world.
But at Sinai, the Jews were called upon to accept the Torah. What was created was a contractual relationship between God and the Jewish nation based on the latter’s commitment to Torah. This is not to say that the commands of Torah were also not the edicts of the Divine King upon this nation, but the realization noted here does point to a further dimension in the observance of Torah by the Jewish People. The call upon the Jewish People to accept the Torah included a need for them to recognize the value of this system. Observance of the Torah is not solely to arise from an obligation to observe the commands of the Divine King. The Jewish People were also to follow it because they saw the value in it and accepted the obligation to abide by it.
There is an inherent problem, though, with such a call. The sources point to another reason why a person would follow God’s edicts – it is similar as to why we would listen to a doctor or one wiser than us, who cares about us, and gives us advice. And in the case of God, His caring and His knowledge is unbounded. So how could we not listen? Yet, if the Jewish People simply accepted the Torah based upon their understandable full trust in God, how can we distinguish the nation’s acceptance at Sinai through an understanding of the value in God’s edicts?
The answer was found in the Jewish People’s response of Na’aseh v’Nishma [literally, ‘we will do and we will listen’, but more correctly a statement of ‘we will do and we will understand’] which the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) states reflected the secrets of the Heavens. The nation recognized that, because of the limitations of their humanity, they could not accept the Torah based on a full understanding of all the Divine good within it. Their acceptance of the Torah would have to be based on their trust in God, but that does, no matter how correct it is, detract from the nature of the contractual relationship.
The Jewish People thus recognized that this must also be an inherent part of the Sinai relationship. The solution must be in the commitment to understand. What God uniquely demanded of the Jewish nation at Sinai was, to the best of their human ability, to attempt to understand, integrate and emulate the Divine. This is Na’aseh – we will follow the edicts of God for He is our King – v’Nishma – we will also follow these edicts through our striving to understand the Divine Wisdom within them. This is the essence of our celebration of Shavuot.
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