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The Place of Zionism in Judaism, Or is it Judaism in Zionism?

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Last week in the Midrasha I participated in a teacher's panel with the students. Though the questions were all of a more personal nature about us as teachers, one of the students, Sofia Simantov, asked a general question about the place of Zionism in Judaism. Without going into the full details of the question and giving a comprehensive answer, I would like to share with you an observation on this week's Parsha which at least sheds some light on the issue.

Parshat Yitro, though quite short, is distinguished for having in it Matan Torah and the Ten Commandments, the direct revelation of G-d to Bnei Yisrael in Chapter 20 of Sefer Shmot. Prior to that though, Chapter 19 is devoted to the preparation of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael for Matan Torah. One of the more well-known elements of that preparation is the willingness of Bnei Yisrael to readily receive the Torah. "Na'aseh Ve'nishma"[1] – "We will do and we will listen" proclaim Bnei Yisrael, and although this appears later in Chapter 24, according to Rashi[2] and others this was actually stated before Chapter 20 and therefore also before Matan Torah.

However, there seems to be an overlooked peculiarity regarding Matan Torah, possibly because of the apparent obviousness of its necessity, meaning, how could we have a Torah without a Matan Torah? Nevertheless, the question begs to be asked: Why Matan Torah? Apparently a ridiculous question - however, the point is that Matan Torah and The Ten Commandments are not the beginning of the dialogue between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. Until this point Hashem has instructed and communicated with Bnei Yisrael ever since Chapter 4 of Shmot. Moshe, both himself and through Aharon, convey the messages and instructions of Hashem faithfully to Bnei Yisrael and Bnei Yisrael are accepting of Moshe as Hashem's faithful  prophet. So why do we now need a "personal appearance" of Hashem Himself to give Bnei Yisrael the Torah?

The answer is, apparently, because Bnei Yisrael demanded it!

At the beginning of Chapter 19, in way of introduction to Matan Torah, the Torah says:

Moshe ascended to G-d, and the Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Ya'akov and tell Bnei Yisrael,

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to Me.

And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.

And you shall be to Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the Bnei Yisrael.[3]

These are the verses that foretell the giving of the Torah and Mitzvot. After Moshe tells this to Bnei Yisrael , they respond:

And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that Hashem has spoken we shall do!" and Moshe took the words of the people back to Hashem.[4]

Although this verse seems to echo that willingness of Bnei Yisrael to accept unconditionally all that Hashem will demand of them, Rashi, based on Chazal in the Mechilta, seems to explain this verse in a way that I believe turns things around:

A response to this statement I have heard from them (Bnei Yisrael), that they want to hear directly from You. They maintain that there is no comparison between one who hears a message from the mouth of the messenger and one who hears it from the mouth of the king himself. They say, “We want to see our King!” [5]

According to Rashi, Bnei Yisrael were no longer prepared to hear the instructions of Hashem through Moshe. They are now demanding a direct "audience" with Hashem and wanted to hear it "directly from the King Himself"! Bnei Yisrael are demanding a personal, direct Matan Torah!

Why? What happened? How was this day different to the day before when they had full faith in the loyalty and integrity of Moshe? This could be compared to a soldier in the army that gets his orders from his officers and loyally carries them out. All of a sudden, one day, after having been ordered to do something, he refuses unless he hears it directly from the president himself. The only reason for this refusal must be that he suspects that the officer is lying. Why are Bnei Yisrael all of a sudden suspect of Moshe?

When Moshe first appears to Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim with the message of redemption, Bnei Yisrael are accepting of him and his prophesy without question. The reason for this is simply because Moshe tells them what they already know and expect. Moshe tells them that Hashem has sent him to them in order to fulfil the covenant that He had made with their forefathers, to bring them to Eretz Yisrael. This was the tradition and legacy that Bnei Yisrael received and passed down generation after generation. The covenant that Hashem made with the Avot was concerning Eretz Yisrael and the future nation. But odd as it may sound, there was no covenant about a future accepting of Torah and Mitzvot. The covenant was about Zionism (the Jewish people in the Land of Israel), not about religion (Torah and Mitzvot).

In our Parsha, when Moshe foretells Bnei Yisrael of the upcoming "code of laws", the mission of becoming a "kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation", Bnei Yisrael are correctly overcome with suspicion. "Where does this idea come from?" they ask each other. This is not part and parcel of the covenant Hashem made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov! "We demand to hear it directly from G-d!"

At Matan Torah, only after directly hearing from Hashem, do Bnei Yisrael accept Torah and Mitzvot as a legitimate addition to the established covenant of Land and Nation made between Hashem and the Avot.

Shabbat Shalom

N.B. Obviously the above mentioned warrants further explanation regarding why things are as they are, meaning the relationship between the covenant of the Avot and the covenant of Matan Torah, and B'H we will be able to do that in a future Dvar Torah.


[1] Shmot 24;7.

[2] Rashi Shmot 24.

[3] Shmot 19;3-6.

[4] Shmot 19;8.

[5] Rashi Shmot ibid.


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