Thoughts on Shavuot

Torah from Heaven

The revelation at Mount Sinai was not just a religious event. It was a political event of a unique kind. It was the birth of a nation. Throughout Genesis, the heirs of Abraham had been an extended family. At the beginning of Exodus we hear them for the first time described as an am, a “people.” Pharaoh says, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are too many and powerful for us” (Ex. 1: 9).

What made them a people were many things. There was kinship: they were all descendants of Jacob. There was culture: they were shepherds which made them suspect to the Egyptians. There was history: they were newcomers to the land. Their origins lay elsewhere. Above all, there was shared suffering. Isaiah Berlin noted that it is usually a sense of an injustice done to one’s people that is the crucible in which nations are formed. Israel became a people in Egypt, bound by brit goral, a covenant of shared fate.

At Sinai, however, they became an edah, a body politic. God invited them to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” – the first mission statement of the Jewish people, perhaps the first of any nation anywhere. The covenant they agreed to then became their written constitution as citizens in the republic of faith under the sovereignty of God.

It is the last phrase that is crucial here: “under the sovereignty of God.” It is sometimes thought that the Ten Commandments were a moral revolution in humankind. This is not so in the sense usually understood. It did not take Divine revelation to tell humans that they must not murder, or rob, or give false testimony in court. Humans have always known this. Cain was punished by God for killing his brother Abel, but God had not commanded, “You shall not murder.” Every rational moral rule has been binding on humans since they first appeared on earth, said Rabbenu Nissim. It is not here that the originality of Sinai lies.

It lies in something deeper. The Torah is a sustained critique of the abuse of power. It is a response to and a reaction against the world’s first empires, those of Akkad under Sargon (c. 2334 to 2279 BCE, see Gen. 10: 8-10) and Egypt under the Pharaohs, where whole populations could be enslaved to further the self-aggrandizing projects ordered by rulers to ensure their earthly and heavenly immortality.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, from the Introduction to the new Koren Sacks Shavuot Mahzor