Sinai and Our Universe of Obligation



Thousands of years after Sinai, living in close and complex relationship to people across so many intersecting spheres, what does it mean to be "obligated" to others?  To whom are we obligated?  How, why, and what does our tradition have to say about it?


Deuteronomy 10:18-19

Translation Original
[God] upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him/her with food and clothing. -- You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. [JPS translation edited for gender-neutrality]

עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה: וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. In what ways does this text suggest that we mimic God?
2. What is God's responsibility to us and what is our responsibility to others? What are the different sources of these responsibilities?
3. This text reminds the reader of Israelite slavery. In what ways is a history of slavery connected to doing justice and loving the stranger?

Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 5.

We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. 'Someone else's physical needs are my spiritual obligation,' a Jewish mystic taught.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, “Can Social Justice Save the American Jewish Soul?”, Judaism, Justice, and American Life, p. 4-5

If the Exodus created an ethnic/tribal consciousness among Jews, it was Sinai that invested in them an understanding of their mission in the world. Jewish existence was to be based on bringing tzedek and mishpat, righteousness and justice, to all God’s children. The covenant forged at Sinai committed the Jewish people to a life of ethics and values. It was the spiritual/moral genesis of the Jewish people, and it was powerfully connected to the Jewish people’s understanding of what God wants of them. The Torah’s teachings about acting with compassion (chesed), protecting the stranger in one’s midst (ahavat ger), and pursuing peace (shalom) and truth (emet) shaped the Jewish notion of how one should live in the world. Sinai consciousness is at the root of the Jewish understanding that to live true to the covenant that God established with the Jewish people at Sinai is to live a life of social responsibility.


Elie Wiesel [on Indifference], US News & World Report (27 October 1986).

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And, the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference. Because of indifference one dies before one actually dies.

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 71a

Translation Original
R. Joseph learnt: If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you: [this teaches, if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights. [Soncino translation]
דתני רב יוסף (שמות כ"ב) אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך, עמי ונכרי - עמי קודם, עני ועשיר - עני קודם, ענייך ועניי עירך - ענייך קודמין, עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת - עניי עירך קודמין.
  1.  What about this text do you think is wise? What about it is troubling?
  2. According to this text, what should we do when these binaries overlap - for example, how would you decide between a Jew who lives far away and a non-Jewish neighbor?
  3. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

David Hartman, A Living Covenant (New York: Free Press, 1985).

Torah, therefore, should not be understood as a complete, finished system. Belief in the giving of the Torah at Sinai does not necessarily imply that the full truth has already been given and that our task is only to unfold what was already present in the fullness of the founding moment of revelation. Sinai gave the community a direction, an arrow pointing toward a future filled with many surprises. Halakhah, which literally means “walking,” is like a road that has not been fully paved and completed. The Sinai moment of revelation, as mediated by the ongoing discussion in the tradition, invites one and all to acquire the competence to explore the terrain and extend the road. It does not require passive obedience and submission to the wisdom of the past


Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 251:4

Translation Original
Now there is something fundamental about the details of the laws above that troubles me deeply. For if we explain the texts that I have cited according to their simple meaning – that certain groups are prior to others – they imply that [one may distribute the entirety of one’s tzedakah money to one group within the established hierarchy] and need not give at all to those who fall outside of that particular group . . .And if this is the case, poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation. Now how is it possible to say this?! Therefore, in my humble opinion, the explanation of [tzedakah priorities] is as follows: Certainly every person, whether of modest or significant means, is obligated to give a portion of his [or her] tzedakah money to needy people who are not relatives. . . . And in places where there are no wealthy residents, should people be left to starve? How is it possible to say this? Nor do people act this way. [translation by Rabbi David Rosenn, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps]
 האמנם בעיקרי הדברים ק"ל טובא דאם נאמר דברים כפשוטן דאלו קודמין לאלו ואלו לאלו דהכוונה שא"צ ליתן כלל למדרגה שאחר זה ולפ"ז ... וא"כ לפ"ז אותם העניים שאין להם קרובים עשירים ימותו ברעב ואיך אפשר לומר כן. ולכן נלע"ד דבירור הדברים כך הם דבוודאי כל בע"ב או עשיר הנותן צדקה מחוייב ליתן חלק לעניים הרחוקים ... ובמקומות שאין עשירים יגוועו העניים ברעב ואיך אפשר לומר כן וגם המנהג אינו כן:
  1. What does the author of this text claim “troubles [him] deeply” about the positions he cites? What does he propose as an alternate reading of the law?
  2. How does this text resolve the tensions between the first two texts? What problems or questions remain?
  3. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?



"JTA Op-Ed: Judaism is always ‘tikkun olam’—and more" by Rabbi Eric Yoffie 2

The work of social justice, absent text study and ritual practice as a foundation, is inauthentic and will not sustain itself. Indeed, I have found that the work of "tikkun olam," for all its rewards, is lonely and discouraging work, and only by absorbing the light of the Shabbat candles and by studying and worshiping with a strong, dynamic Jewish community can I immunize myself against the cynicism and alienation that surround us? 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "The Dignity of Difference", (London: Continuum, 2002), p.30

David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?



Psalms 89:3

Translation Original
The world was built by lovingkindness. [AJWS translation]
עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה:

Job 31:5-6

Translation Original
Have I walked with worthless people, or my feet hurried to deceit? Let God weigh me on the scale of justice; let God ascertain my integrity. [AJWS translation]
אִם הָלַכְתִּי עִם שָׁוְא וַתַּחַשׁ עַל מִרְמָה רַגְלִי: יִשְׁקְלֵנִי בְמֹאזְנֵי צֶדֶק וְיֵדַע אֱלוֹהַּ תֻּמָּתִי:

Hosea 6:6

Translation Original
For I desire kindness and not sacrifice, attachment to God rather than burnt offerings. [Translation by Areyvut]
כִּי חֶסֶד חָפַצְתִּי וְלֹא זָבַח וְדַעַת אֱלֹהִים מֵעֹלוֹת

Genesis 18:20-25

Translation Original
And the Lord said, "The cry of Sodom and Gomorah has become great, and their sin is grave. I will go down and see whether their actions altogether match their cries that have reached me. (i.e. if things are as bad as they sound) If not, I will know..." And Abraham approached [God] and said, "Will You destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city. Will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst? Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?" [Translation by Hillel and Panim]
וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד: וַיִּפְנוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיֵּלְכוּ סְדֹמָה וְאַבְרָהָם עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק:וַיִּפְנוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיֵּלְכוּ סְדֹמָה וְאַבְרָהָם עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק:אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט:

Deuteronomy 4:9

Translation Original
But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children's children. [JPS translation]
רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ: