A Retrospective: From Servitude to Sinai

Context

In retrospect, the book of Shmot reflects that the Jewish nation is born through a two-stage process, with the road to Sinai passing through Egypt. The Exodus and Revelation are both clearly portrayed in the Torah as critical components in the formation of our national character.

Questions

Why are the Exodus and Revelation both essential to the birth of the Jewish nation? Is there a philosophical continuum between these two events that might inform our lives today?

Approaches

A.

At first glance, the questions raised seem clearly rhetorical. The Torah itself openly elucidates lessons to be learned from each of these monumental events – and rabbinic literature is replete with additional observations.

The existence of God; God’s hand in history; our obligation to be kind to strangers; the equality of our personal origins; gratitude to God for our freedom; the recognition that true freedom carries obligations; the transience of seemingly powerful empires; the primacy of law – these are only a few of the foundational ideas so clearly conveyed by the two powerful experiences which shape the earliest moments of our national history.

B.
And yet, perhaps an even more basic observation can be made about the nature of our early national journey, inspired by a parallel, yet quieter journey: the individual passage of the potential convert who wishes to join the Jewish nation today.

The question is raised in the Talmud: Where does the potential convert begin? What is the first step along the path towards conversion to Judaism?

One would assume the answer to be obvious: the journey should begin with elucidation of the mitzvot. After all, what defines Judaism if not the Torah and its laws? Shouldn’t the initial requirement for entry into a nation forged at Sinai be the understanding and acceptance of the law given at Sinai? Nothing else would seem appropriate.

The rabbis, however, disagree. In a striking Talmudic passage they clearly outline the first step a potential convert must take:

“If a prospective proselyte comes to convert in this day, we say to him: ‘What did you perceive that prompted you to come? Did you not know that the Jewish people are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden and harassed – and that hardships are regularly visited upon them?’

If the individual responds: ‘I know, and I am unworthy [of sharing in their hardships],’ we accept him immediately [as a potential convert worthy of education] and we inform him of some ‘minor’ mitzvot and some ‘major’ mitzvot…”

Apparently the rabbis feel that there is a prerequisite to the acceptance of mitzvot. Before an individual can begin to accept the Torah, he must first meet the challenge of belonging; he must first be willing to throw his lot in with the Jewish people, whatever trials that choice might produce, whatever difficulties might ensue.

C.

What, however, is the basis of this rabbinic position? What source can the Talmudic scholars cite to support their confident claim that conversion to Judaism must begin with the choice to “belong”?

The answer, it would seem, is powerfully simple. The rabbis believe that the initial journey of an individual who wishes to join the Jewish nation must mirror the initial journey of the nation itself.

As stated above, the Jewish nation is born through a two-stage process. Before we could arrive at Sinai God challenged us with participation in the Exodus. Before we could experience Revelation we had to choose to “belong” to the Jewish people. Each of us had to throw our lot in with our fellow Israelites, to leave the familiar and travel into the unknown, to follow the leadership of a relative stranger towards a destiny shrouded in mystery. The Midrashic tradition that only a fraction of the Israelites actually followed Moshe into the wilderness reflects a keen awareness of the difficulty of this decision.

The rituals of the conversion process, as we have seen, are derived from the experience of the Israelites immediately prior to and during the Revelation at Sinai. The first step towards conversion, however, like the first step of our national journey, is rooted in the Exodus.

Reaching across the ages, the journey of the book of Shmot speaks to us clearly. First you must choose to “belong.”

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.