Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
Efrat, Israel — “And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it into the ears of the nation, and they said, ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we shall do and we shall understand” [Ex. 23:7].
At Sinai, the Jewish nation entered into its second covenant with God, a pact based not on the family-nation of the descendants of Abraham [per Gen. 15] but rather on the common religious commitment of adherence to the word of God revealed at Sinai. My revered teacher and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, taught that, in fact, the Torah contains two covenantal experiences: the former, our national covenant of fate; the latter, our religious covenant of destiny [“Kol Dodi Dofek”].
An individual is not asked whether they wish to be born into a specific family or nation-state; “accident” of birth is a matter of fate, and the fate of the Jewish nation has long been to suffer far more than its to-be-expected share of persecution, exile and suffering. To be Jewish was their fate, and their blood was too often shed as a consequence.
Not so the religious faith of the commandments of revelation. The Torah calls upon each Jew to make a choice: to sanctify the Sabbath or desecrate it; to honor one’s parents or disregard them. When the bedraggled ex-slaves who stood before Sinai and cried out “we shall do and we shall understand!” [Ex. 23:7], they were making the Jewish vision their national mission, defining themselves as a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation,” and turning their fate into destiny.
The covenant of fate is imposed; the covenant of faith is chosen. To be born into a particular family-nation is our fate; to choose an ideal and ideology as our life’s mission is our destiny. The infant about to be circumcised is an object upon whom a ritual is to be imposed; the bar/bat mitzva and bride/groom who have chosen a life dedicated to the ideals of Torah are subjects actualizing their deepest aspirations.
There are, however, special circumstances when fate and destiny become intertwined. One such moment was in September 1970 in Riga, Latvia, where I was on a special underground mission for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l. I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. with a daunting and marvelous request. Two brothers, one just eight days old and the other one week prior to his bar mitzva, were about to be circumcised. Since the Soviet regime severely punished those who participated in such religious rituals, the two “operations” were to take place in the dead of night at the Rombula cemetery outside Riga.
The ritual ceremony had been timed to coincide with my presence in Riga, since the Jewish doctor who had agreed to risk his license—and perhaps his life—was ignorant of Jewish law.
Words cannot describe the feelings of eeriness, queasiness, admiration and privilege that all converged within me while intoning the circumcision blessings that dark, freezing night in the cemetery. But the most poignant moment of all was yet to come.
After both circumcisions, I uttered the traditional phrase: “Just like [ke-shem] this child has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, the nuptial canopy and a life of good deeds.” Suddenly, from the depths of silence which one can only sense in a cemetery, the father of the boys emitted a strangled cry in Yiddish: “Nein ‘ke-shem’!” (“Not ‘just like’!”) “I do not want their brises, bar mitzvas and weddings to be just like this, in hiding, in a cemetery. I want them to be in the open, with pride, in our Jewish homeland, in Israel!”
Indeed, the two children I circumcised nearly five decades ago celebrated their weddings in Israel. Both of them, but particularly the young man just before bar mitzva, were expressing not only their Jewish fate but their Jewish destiny. To a certain extent, this is true of every parent who has their child circumcised. And I believe this is also true with regard to living in the Land of Israel.
On the one hand, every nation, and therefore any national covenant, is dependent upon a specific homeland, in which one is born and about which one generally has little choice. This is not the case, however, with regard to the Jews and the Land of Israel. Because we have been exiled to so many lands for so many generations, our return to Israel depends upon our choice to return to Israel, our willingness to fight for Israel, our understanding that only Israel is our promised land and ultimate home.
Thus, the destiny of the nation of Israel can only be fully realized in the Land of Israel dedicated to the Torah of Israel. The Land of Israel is an integral part of the destiny we accepted at Sinai. We may have returned to Israel as a result of our determination and prayers, but we shall actualize our destiny in Israel only as a result of our efforts and actions.
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