Parashat Nitzavim

We Were There

On a flight to Buenos Aires I once met a man who embraced me as if I'd always known him. I looked at him, and he understood that he had made a mistake.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know you."
He blushed, but cleverly got himself out of an embarrassing situation by saying, "Perhaps we met at the revelation at Mount Sinai. We were all there!"

The reaction of that Jew finds support in one of our Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which is described the renewal of the covenant that was made 40 years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai.

"Not with you only do I make this covenant and administer this oath, but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our G-d, and also with him that is not here with us this day." (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14). Rashi explains: "And even with future generations."

In effect the Torah tells us that we were all there to the same extent as we all went out of Egypt and received the Torah. Throughout the generations Jews are born and live within a culture that teaches that we were all witnesses to the revelation, even those who became part of the Jewish religion later. This was a unique event, unparalleled in human history, that the entire Jewish people, from children to the aged, were privileged to meet G-d. All other claims to divine revelation in other cultures and other peoples are based on one man or on a limited group that received divine revelation.

This perception is revolutionary and incomprehensible to other peoples. Our neighbors and those that hold anti-Zionist views are sure that the Jewish people has no right to our land because most of us are not descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.

"Your place is in Russia, or Poland, or Rumania" they say to Jews of Ashkenazi origin. Not long ago an enemy of the Jews said that the Middle Eastern conflict will be resolved when we return to those places.

An interesting halachic issue deals with the same point. The Rambam was once asked by Ovadiah the convert, who had been born to a Christian family in Italy, if he was entitled to make the blessing and say "Our God and the God of our fathers" (Eloheinu Ve-Elohei Avotenu) or "That sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us" (Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu) or "who has set us apart" (Asher Hivdilanu) or "who chose us" (Asher Bachar Banu) and so on.

The Rambam's answer was unambiguous. Whoever joins the Jewish people is a Jew in every sense, and he joins the Jewish heritage of generations, even if from a genetic point of view he does not belong. Even he who was not present was there. Whoever chose to join the Jewish people chose to be present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.

We all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. For Mount Sinai is not simply a geographical site. Belonging to the Jewish people does not involve a DNA test.

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