Yitro - 17 January 2011 - 17 Shevat 5771
The parsha of Yitro records the revolutionary moment when G-d, creator of heaven and earth, entered into a mutually binding agreement with a nation, the children of Israel, the agreement we call a brit, a covenant.
This is not the first divine covenant in the Torah. G-d had already made one with Noah, and through him all humanity, and another with Abraham, whose sign was circumcision. But those were not fully reciprocal. G-d did not ask for Noah’s agreement, nor did he wait for Abraham’s assent.
But Sinai was a different matter. For the first time, He wanted the covenant to be fully mutual, to be freely accepted. So we find that both before and after the revelation at Sinai G-d commands Moses to make sure the people do actually agree.
The point is fundamental. G-d wants to rule by right, not might. The G-d who brought an enslaved people to liberty seeks the free worship of free human beings.
אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו
G-d does not act toward his creatures like a tyrant (Avodah Zarah 3a). So at Sinai was born the principle that was, millennia later, described by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence, the idea that governors and governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That is why the Sinai covenant was conditional on the people’s agreement.
Admittedly, the Talmud questions how free the Israelites actually were, and it uses an astonishing image. It says that G-d suspended the mountain above their heads and said, “If you agree, well and good. If you don’t, here will be your burial.” That is another topic for another time. Suffice it to say there is no indication of this in the plain sense of the text itself.
What is interesting is the exact wording in which the Israelites signal their consent. To repeat: they do so three times, first before the revelation, and then twice afterwards, in the parsha of Mishpatim.
Listen to the three verses. Before the revelation:
וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק נַעֲשֶׂה וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל יְקֹוָק:
All the people answered as one and said, 'All that G-d has spoken, we will do.' (Ex. 19: 8)
Note the subtle difference. In two cases the people say, all that G-d says, we will do. In the third, the double verb is used: naaseh ve-nishma. “We will do and we will hear, or obey, or hearken, or understand.” The word shema means to understand, as we see in the story of the tower of Babel:
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְקֹוָק וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק נַעֲשֶׂה:
Moses came and told the people all of G-d's words and all the laws. The people all responded with a single voice, 'We will do every word that G-d has spoken.'
(Ex. 24: 3).
וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם
וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע:
He took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. They replied, 'We will do and nishma all that G-d has declared.'
Now note that there is another difference. In the first two cases there is a clear emphasis on the unity of the people. Both phrases are very striking. The first says: all the people answered as one. The second says, The people all responded with a single voice. In a book that emphasizes how fractious and fissiparous the people were, such declarations of unanimity are significant and rare. But the third verse, which mentions both doing and listening or understanding, contains no such statement. It simply says: They replied. There is no emphasis on unanimity or consensus.
הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ:
“Come, let us descend and confuse their speech, so that one person will not understand another's speech.” (Gen. 11: 7)