Judaism came into existence 3329 years ago, at the foot of a desolate hill, Mount Sinai, located somewhere in the Sinai desert. There, the entire nation of Israel — assembled after having left Egypt 50 days before, and after spending that time in soul-searching spiritual preparation for the event — collectively heard the voice of G-d declare:
Anochi Ha-Shem Elo-hecha asher hotzéthicha mé’ereyz Mitzrayim mibéyth ‘avadim. Lo’ yihye lëcha elohim achérim ‘al panai.
I am Ha-Shem your G-d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You will not have any other gods before Me. (Exodus XX, 1-2)
After the first two Divine utterances, which had the effect of pulling the souls of the assembled nation out of them, such that they died and had to be Divinely revived, the nation deputized Moshe (Moses) to receive the rest of the Torah on their behalf and teach it to them, as that would be less arduous (ibid., 15-16). They finally declared:
Kol asher dibbér Ha-Shem na‘ase vënishma‘.
Everything which Ha-Shem has said we shall do and we shall hear. (ibid., XXIV, 7)
G-d stated His purpose in creating the nation of Israel and investing it with its constitution, the 613 commandments of the Torah, in His prefatory remarks to Moshe:
Vë‘atta im shamoa‘ tishmë‘u bëqoli ushëmartem eth bërithi vihyithem li sëgulla mikol ha‘ammim ki li kol ha’aretz. Vë’attem tihyu li mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy aadosh.
And now, if you will listen intently to My voice and you will keep My covenant and you will be more precious to Me than all the other peoples, for Mine is the entire world. And you will be My kingdom of priests and holy nation. (ibid., XIX, 5-6).
For this purpose and to this end, Israel are enjoined numerous times in the written Torah to be holy and to sanctify themselves through observance of its various provisions.
But unlike Judaism’s two problematic daughters, Christianity and Islam, which preach the Great Commission and the Dawa or “call,” respectively, to convert the entire world, Judaism does not proselytize. Indeed, though conversion to Judaism is possible, it is not encouraged and is in fact actively discouraged. Yet, the Jewish nation have been set the task of tikkun ‘olam, “repairing the world,” a phrase which recurs repeatedly in the Talmud.
How are we to go about accomplishing that task?
The Torah regards the Jewish people to be in a status analogous to the kohanim, descendants of Moshe’s brother Aharon who officiated in the Temple. Just as their state of sanctity makes them liable to more restrictions than the ordinary Israelite under the Torah, so are all of Israel subject to more commandments than the rest of the world. But the nations of the world have their role to play, too.
Before that momentous event at the foot of Sinai, the Oral Torah tells us that Noach (Noah) and his family, as they descended from the ark on Mount Ararat, were commanded concerning seven commandments. They were, in no particular order:
- The prohibition of bloodshed
- The prohibition of the misappropriation of another’s property
- The prohibition of sexual immorality
- The prohibition of idolatry
- The prohibition of cursing G-d’s name
- The prohibition of consuming a part of a living animal (i.e., it must be slaughtered first)
- The establishment of courts of law to deal with infractions of the first six
Unfortunately, the subsequent history of mankind is the history of the attempt to abandon and forget these commandments as quickly as possible, and numerous incidents in the later parts of the book of Genesis may best be understood in terms of these commandments and the reluctance of the nations to obey them. As a result, none of the other nations have preserved the pure tradition from Noach, and in consequence they can come to observe these commandments only through the Torah and the Jewish people.
The proximate cause of our present exile, which began nearly 2,000 years ago, is described in the Talmud as sin’ath chinnam, usually translated as “groundless hatred,” between different levels of Jewish society in those days. But one of the reasons it has lasted so long, and we have been scattered so far and wide among the nations of the Earth, is to make it possible for people in faraway places to encounter Israel. If we do not proselytize directly, the Talmud (Yoma 86a), commenting on Deuteronomy VI, 5, Vë’ahavta eth Ha-Shem Elo-hecha (“And you will love Ha-Shem your G-d … ”) tells us that it means:
… sheyëhé’ shém shamayim mith’ahév ‘al yadecha, sheyëhé’ qoré’ vëshone umëshammésh tlmifei chachamim, vihé’ massa’o umattano bënachath ‘im habëriyoth, ma habëriyoth omëroth ‘alav ashrei.
… that the name of Heaven be beloved because of you, that you be reading and studying Torah and serving Torah scholars, and that one’s business negotiations be conducted pleasantly with G-d’s creations, such that those creations will say, Happy [are they].
In other words, our purpose is to lead by example, to demonstrate through our lives the advantages of leading a life according to the will of Ha-Shem, so that others may see it and wish to emulate it. It is then that we can explain to them the seven commandments.
As the passage quoted from Exodus XIX at the beginning of this piece intimates, this function of serving as the mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy aadosh requires first that we harken to Ha-Shem’s voice and keep the covenant which He made with us and which the Torah testifies that we so readily accepted. This has been made more difficult by the erosion which has occurred during this long and terrible exile. As King David put it:
Elo-hei thëhillathi al techerash. Ki fi rasha‘ ufi mirma ‘alai pathachu, dibbëru itti lëshon shaqer. Vëdicrei sin’a sëvavuni, vilachamuni chinnam. Tachath ahavathi yistënuni va’ani tëfilla. Vayasimu ‘alai ra‘a tachth tova vësin’a tachath ahavathi.
G-d, Whom I praise, do not be still. For the mouth of the evildoer and the mouth of deceit are opened against me, they have spoken about me in a language of falsehood. And words of hatred surround me, and they fight me over nothing. In place of my love they oppose me; and I am prayerful. And they have returned evil to me in return for good and hatred in return for my love.
Our primary effort now must be to reach out to our estranged brethren, to return them to a state in which they are “reading and learning and serving Torah scholars.” Only then can we be the mamlecheth kohanim vëgoy aadosh and fulfill our function as the world’s priesthood and prime repository of sanctity.