In the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) it is written: Ulla Rabbah lectured at the entrance to the Nasi’s house: What is meant by (Psalms 138:4), “יודוך ה’ כל מלכי ארץ כי שמעו אמרי פיך” (All the kings of the earth shall make admission unto Thee, O Lord, For they have heard the words of Thy mouth)? The Psalm does not say the word of Thy mouth (מאמר פיך), but the words of Thy mouth (אמרי פיך). When the Holy One Blessed Be He proclaimed (Exodus 20:2-3), “אנכי ה’ אלוקיך וכו’ לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים ” (I am the Eternal your God and you shall have no other gods before me), the nations of the world said: “He teaches merely for His own honor.” As soon as He declared: (Exodus 20:11) “כבד את אביך ואת אמך” (honor your father and your mother), they recanted and admitted [the justice of] the first command [too].
Anyone who has studied the history of the world knows about the great and fierce wars that were waged between nations on account of faith and religion. Many powerful nations have been destroyed with no trace because of religious enmity. Faith has claimed many victims; the number killed is staggering. Who is unaware of the great storm created in the world with the rise of the Christian faith, and believers wished to bring all the inhabitants of the world under the covenant of their faith? They attacked any nation or kingdom that did not bow its head before them to accept and adhere to their faith, leaving no survivors. For untold years they turned the entire globe into a killing field. Not until recent years did the earth rest and become quiet from the blows of their heavy hand.
So when the Eternal descended upon Mount Sinai to give the holy religion to the people of Israel, all the nations of the world were frightened and seized with trembling because they thought that the faithful of this new religion would try with all their might to extend, through war for the sake of and the glory of Israel, the boundaries of their faith, bringing many nations under the yoke of the new religion. A similar view is expressed by another Midrash.
As soon as the nations of the world heard the words of the Eternal emanating from Sinai, they all gathered together with Balaam and said to him, “it seems to us that the Omnipresent intends to destroy the world.” He replied, “ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום” )the Eternal gives strength to His people, the Eternal bless his people with peace(.
The opinion of this Midrash is that the people of the earth feared for their lives on account of the Children of Israel, inheritors of the new religion, lest they wage war in a quest to compell all the nations to accept the covenant of the Torah and its commandments. They feared that the earth would be destroyed because of the ensuing catastrophic war. Balaam answered that although the aspiration of Israel was to illuminate the night and to fill up the entire earth with knowledge so that the Eternal would be an everlasting light and so that all the kings of the earth would praise Him, His way is not with power or with might but with the Spirit of the Lord of Hosts. And the words of the sages will be spoken pleasantly until all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the Eternal is called upon them, and only then will they all, together, turn their shoulders to worship Him. And His people will perform their task with knowledge, and wisdom, in peace and in tranquility. And that is why Balaam said: “ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום” (the Eternal will give strength to His people to glorify His name throughout the world, but nevertheless they will not wage war, for the Eternal will bless His people with peace).
This Midrash explains well what the Eternal said to the Children of Israel when giving them the Torah (Exodus 19:5): “ושמרתם את בריתי והייתם לי סגולה מכל העמים כי לי כל הארץ” )and you shall keep My covenant and you will be a treasure unto Me from all the nations, for all the land is Mine). For if the children of Israel will observe the Torah, they will be a treasure unto the Eternal forever, even when the time comes that “כי לי כל הארץ” (all the land is Mine) and all the nations will proclaim the name of the Eternal, and He will be exalted. Even then the Children of Israel will be more precious to the Eternal than any of the nations of the world because “ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים” (you will be unto Me a kingdom of priests). For just as the priests stand at the head of the nation to illuminate the path upon which the nation should travel, so, too, must the Children of Israel illuminate the whole world for its inhabitants. Many peoples shall walk in their light and many nations in their radiance. And how will their words bear fruit and have their desired effect in extracting what is precious from what is worthless and in transforming what is impure into that which is pure? By being “a holy nation.” If Israel will sanctify themselves and will be holy unto the Eternal, so that all the nations of the world will see that the name of the Eternal is proclaimed upon them, then the nations will have reverence for them, as it is written (Leviticus 26:3): “ומקדשי תיראו” (and reverence my sanctuary), which is to say, the reverence of honor (יראת הכבוד). It is only in this way that the words of Israel will strike a chord in the heart of all the nations, but it cannot be accomplished through war or by the exercise of force and brute strength.
Now we all know that a solitary man for whom the pure life that a man lives with his family and his household is of no value, but instead separates himself from his family from his father’s house, a man who doesn’t share in their distress or take pleasure in their joy — we know that such a man very easily and very willingly prepares himself for war and casts his life away on the battlefield for any cause, great or small. Neither drawn sword nor fear of death deters him from fighting with a mighty arm; nothing tames his spirit, because, being alone, he places no value on his own life. Disconnected, what value does he or his life have? Not so the man whose life is tied by bonds of love to his mother and father and his family and whose whole life is focused on them. He will not raise his soul to fight for his land and his people, or even for his faith and his religion, because his heart will tremble within him for the lives of his household whose eyes are upon him. His spirit and soul and all his thoughts being completely devoted to his parents and his family, how would he clothe himself in strength to raise his sword to smite his enemies? For will not the ones he loves, those who are precious to him, pull him back with emotional ties, just as he, too, yearns for them? So how would his hand be able to draw the bow of the mighty? Wouldn’t those dear to his soul rob him of self-confidence and courage on the battlefield? Nothing is more certain than that such a man is not a man of war and will be unsuccessful in battle, because he loves peace so that, ensconced in the love of his household, his family and his parents, he can be tranquil and serene in his home and at peace in his dwelling place. Through their love he will flourish always, in the days of their joy and happiness and even in the days of their sadness and heartbreak, for good or for ill.
So, when the Eternal commanded: “כבד את אביך ואת אמך” (honor your father and your mother), which is the cornerstone of the life of the House of Israel — that every man should live with his family in the house of his father (and the rabbis also infer from the extra words “את אביך ואת אמך” that one must also love and cling to his brothers and sisters as to his own soul) — He showed that He does not wish to reign with a strong hand. The Eternal did not want the Children of Israel to fight a holy war for the sake of their faith and to subdue the nations by force of arms and compel the nations to submit to their faith. Rather the Israelites were to proceed in the spirit of justice and of wisdom and understanding, for they are not men of war and conflict.
The words of the Midrash are now seven times brighter than the sun. For at first, when the Eternal said: “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me,” the nations of the world said that the Eternal seeks only His own glory, and the Israelites will go out with a high hand to wage war for their faith. However, when the Eternal said: “Honor your father and your mother,” the nations understood that if the Israelites act accordingly, and every man lives with his family in the house of his father, then they will not wage war successfully. Nor are they a people of conflict and contention eager to do battle. The anxiety of the nations was then quieted, and, recanting what they said earlier, they now praised Him for His words.
And our master has found a confirmation of his interpretation in the Midrash to seder Naso (Numbers Rabbah 8:4) where the substance of the same derivation is presented in a different version:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel and said (Exodus 20:2), “I am the Lord your God,” the kings of the nations of the world each observed, “He speaks as we do, for what king wishes that another should deny him recognition?” Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said (Id. 3), “You shall have no other gods before m,” they observed: “What king likes to have an associate?” Likewise, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said (Id. 7), “לא תשא את שם אלוקיך לשוא” )you shall not take the name of the Eternal your Lord) they observed: “What king could consent that people should swear by him, yet speak falsehood?” So, also, when the Holy One Blessed Be He, said (Id. 8), “זכור את יום השבת” (remember the Sabbath day), they observed: “What king would be satisfied that people should not honor the day which he has kept as a day of rest?) When, however, He said (Id. 12), “Honor your father and your mother,” they remarked: “According to our laws any person who registers himself for unqualified submission to the king renounces his parents; while He proclaims, “Honor your father and your mother.” Whereupon, they rose from their thrones and gave Him praise.
And does this version of the Midrash not explicitly confirm the words of our master above concerning its proper interpretation? (שביבי אש)
ישלם ה’ פעלך ותהי משכורתך שלימה מעם ה’ אלהי ישראל אשר באת לחסות תחת כנפיו
The Lord will recompense your work, and a full reward shall be given to you by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.
It is written in the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 5:4): R. Hasa said, the Scripture writes “אשר באת” (that you came).
There are many who have discussed this Midrash at length, but our master explained that one must first consider the verses Exodus 19:3-6: “כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבית ישראל. אתם ראיתם וכו’ ועתה אם שמוע תשמעו בקולי ושמרתם את בריתי והייתם לי סגולה מכל העמים כי לי כל הארץ. ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש אלה הדברים אשר תדבר אל בני ישראל” (Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel; You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the people of Israel)
Many questions arise:
1. What is the significance of the repetitive mention of “בית יעקב” (the house of Jacob) and “ובני ישראל” (the people of Israel)?
2. What is the difference between “אמירה” (saying) and “והגדה” (telling)?
3. The words “אם שמוע תשמעו” (if you will obey) is encompassing, so why is it necessary to add “שמרתם את בריתי” (keep my covenant)?
4. How does “כי לי כל הארץ” (for all the earth is Mine) provide an explanation for “והייתם לי סגולה” (you will be My treasure among all the peoples)?
5. What is signified by the repetitive mention of “ממלכת כהנים” (a kingdom of priests) and “וגוי קדוש” (a holy nation)?
We know indeed that the Eternal commanded each of us to observe and fulfill the Torah and the commandments according to our own individual capacities. But the responsibility for the sins committed by any individual was also placed upon all of us, because everyone is responsible for his friend, for if anyone sins, the Eternal becomes angry at the entire nation, holding them all responsible for not reproving the sinner so that he would repent of his sins. Anyone capable of assisting the Eternal by preventing another person from falling into sin, yet does nothing, has incurred guilt too great to bear as the Ramban teaches in his commentary on the verse (Deuteronomy 27:26) “ארור אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת” (cursed be he who does not maintain all the words of this Torah) citing the Palestinian Talmud (Sotah 7:4). And it was on this condition of personal responsibility of each for the sins of others that the Eternal made a covenant with us at Horeb, as it is written (Deuteronomy 29:11) “לעברך בברית ה’ אלקיך ובאלתו” (that you enter into covenant with the Lord your God and its sanctions).
It was because of the responsibility of each for the sins of his fellows that the nation refused to accept the Torah when it was offered to them. This is the opinion of the Sifri concerning the verse (Deuteronomy 33:2-4): “ה’ מסני בא וזרח משאיר למו הופיע מהר פרן ואתא מרבבות קדש ממינו אש דת למו וכו’ תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלית יעקב” (the Lord came from Sinai and rose up from Seir to them, He shone forth from Mount Paran, he came from the ten thousands of holy ones with flaming fire at his right hand. . . . Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance for the assembly of Jacob). According to the Sifri, the Eternal went from nation to nation offering to give them the Torah, but they did not want it. And the reason that the nations and the kingdoms did not want it was that they did not want to be responsible for each other. Each nation had its own excuse. The children of Esau said that they were murderers and had lust for blood, while the Torah says “לא תרצח” (you shall not kill). The children of Amon and Moab argued that they were all adulterers, while the book of wisdom says “לא תנאף” (do not commit adultery). And the children of Ishmael answered that they are thieves and predators, but the Torah raised her voice to say “לא תגנב” (you shall not steal). That is how they all avoided accepting the Torah.
But this Midrash is amazing. Aren’t these three prohibitions among the seven Noahide Laws that they were already obligated to observe? [See further explanations of this Midrash in seder ve-zot ha-brakhah.] So how could they have turned their back on these commandments? However, the answer is what was just explained. They were willing to accept the Torah, but, knowing that their compatriots had no self-control, being killers, adulterers, or thieves, they were unwilling to accept responsibility for one another. How could anyone accept responsibility for the conduct of his friend?
This is the meaning of the verse there (Deuteronomy 33:3): “כל קדושיו בידך” (all his holy ones are in Your hand). The Sifri explains that this refers to the benefactors of Israel who stand up for Israel and sacrifice themselves on their behalf, for if the people sin, then the benefactors must forfeit their lives. That is why the Scripture concludes: “תורה צוה לנו משה” (Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the assembly of Jacob). For the Children of Israel accepted the Torah as an inheritance for the entire community as a whole, so that they would all be responsible for each other. And we may say, therefore, that only for this reason (i.e., to compel them to accept responsibility for each other) did the Eternal have to place the Israel beneath the mountain and raise it over them like a barrel until they agreed to be responsible for one another. For Israel had sincerely wanted to accept the Torah as they had already said, “נעשה ונשמע” )we will do and we will listen(ץ (And this is how the question of the Tosafot, Shabbat 88a, ד.ה. וכפאו עליהם, did they not all say as one “we will do and we will listen?” may be answered)
Although there is no absolute proof, the idea is at least mentioned in the Talmud in tractate Megillah where the Sages deduce from the words (Esther 9:27) “קיימו וקבלו היהודים” (The Jews ordained, and took upon themselves) that they ordained now what they had previously took upon themselves. For in the Scripture the word “וקבלו” is written without a “ויו” (i.e., “וקבל” singular) even though it is read as if it were written with a “ויו” (i.e., “וקבלו” plural). This suggests that when the Torah was given, each individual did indeed willingly accept the Torah upon himself. But at the time of Esther, they all accepted the Torah upon themselves collectively as a community responsible for each other, whereas before they accepted it willingly only as individuals.
It is well known that the responsibility for the actions of others extends only to men, but not to women, in accord with the settled halakhah. (To determine whether men are responsible for the actions of women would require an extended and complicated discussion.) And this well explains the distinction between the two expressions (“תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל”). First, “so shall you say unto the house of Jacob,” which the Sages understand to be a reference to the women, who were not made responsible for each other’s actions. A mild recitation was sufficient for them if they willingly accepted the Torah, so there was no need to speak to them sharply. But then “you should tell the children of Israel” refers to the men. To them it was necessary to speak words as hard as sinews. For even though they willingly accepted the Torah, and said together in great joy, “we will do and we will listen,” they still didn’t want to be responsible for each other’s conduct and did not want to accept the guilt of the entire community on each of their own heads. That is why Moses was commanded to speak to them with a sharp tongue and a commanding voice, and why Moses had to continue to elaborate at length.
Moses therefore continued “ועתה אם שמוע תשמעו בקולו” (now therefore if you will obey My voice( which meant “if you will accept the Torah.” Additionally, “ושמרתם את בריתי” (if you will observe My covenant), meaning the covenant to be responsible for each other as it is written (Deuteronomy 29:11) “that you may enter the sworn covenant of the Lord your God.” Only then “will you be My own possession among all the nations,” and you will be chosen from among all the nations even though “for all the earth is Mine.” In other words, even when all the nations of the world will observe all these commandments, which I have commanded them, even then, the Children of Israel will be holy unto the Eternal — His most precious treasure, His most cherished heirloom — because they entered into the covenant together and accepted responsibility for one another. And who is like the people of Israel, one nation in the world? United as a single person. And Moses continues to explain, “And you will be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” for the duty of a priest is to teach the people the ordinances of and His laws and to lead them on the upright path, as it is written (Deuteronomy 33:10): “יורו משפטיך ליעקב” (they shall teach Jacob Your ordinances). Similarly, the people of Israel, because they accepted responsibility for each other — every man standing on guard for his friend so that he should not sin, each man reproving his friend — could be called a nation consisting entirely of priests. And as a result, all of Israel together would become a holy nation, always sanctified unto the Eternal. So they would never sin to their God, because each man would help his friend maintain his vigilance to fulfill the Torah and the commandments.
Now behold, in the days when the judges judged, and there was a famine in the land — not a famine of bread or water, but a famine of the word of God — Elimelekh, who, according to the Sages, was a judge placed at the head of the people, separated himself and his house from the people, and dwelt alone, by himself, without mingling with them or reproving them. And the Eternal visited his guilt upon him, and he and his sons died while they were living in a strange land. However, Ruth the Moabitess understood the iniquity of her father-in-law and his sons, and how great was their sin, because they had abandoned their people in a time of distress and stood apart from their people and their affliction. She sought to rectify this wrongdoing when she cast aside the abominable idols and sought refuge under the wings of the Lord, of Israel. But this was insufficient in her eyes and she returned with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem seeking the welfare of her people, to be with them in their distress as well as to share in their prosperity.
That is why she said, “your people is my people, and your God is my God.” In saying this, she meant that she was not just clinging to Him alone, to serve Him and to venerate Him, but also “your people is my people” in the days of their glory and well-being, and in the days of their sadness and heartbreak. It was on account of this that Boaz said to her (Ruth 2:12): “May the Lord recompense you for what you have done” because you have clung to Him. But this was not enough, also “a full reward be given you by the Lord, of Israel, under whose wings you have taken refuge.” By this Boaz meant that Ruth’s return to and settlement in Israel showed that she yearned for the people of Israel and longed for their prosperity and well-being. And because the Eternal did not command the women to seek the welfare of their people and because they were not given responsibility for the conduct of their friends, Boaz specifically prayed to the “God of Israel” that Ruth’s reward be complete. He did so, because the Lord of the universe will be called “the God of Israel” forever, even in the time when “all the world is Mine” and all nations will serve Him, because the children of Israel accepted responsibility for each other and formed a single group, directed toward a single goal: to love the Eternal and to venerate Him. And these are the words of R. Hasa in the Midrash: The Scripture writes “אשר באת” (that you came). For it is not just that she converted, but that she came into the nation to dwell among the people as one of them. Because of this her reward should be complete. (שביבי אש)