Our tradition tells us that the Jews accepted the covenant at two different occasions in our history. The first was at Mount Sinai. This seems obvious, but even here there are some complicating factors. God had just taken the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt in an impressive manner. There were horrible plagues put upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s arrogance. The Torah says God brought the people out with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Tacit in this is the realization by the Hebrews that anyone who defied God was at great risk. Accepting the Torah, then, was hardly voluntary. God in fact says, accept the Torah, or this land where you stand will be your grave. The Hebrews of course accepted.
The second acceptance of the covenant, somewhat surprisingly, was during the Purim story in the Book of Esther. I say surprisingly, because in many respects Esther is the least religious book in the Bible. It does not mention God. It takes place outside of the Land of Israel. Most of the Jews remain happily adjusted to Persian life. Nonetheless, our rabbis believed that this became a great time of spiritual growth. Jews in fact lived happily in Persia, now Iran, until our present-day.
For most of our history, our acceptance of the Torah imitated that of Mount Sinai. Judaism was rarely voluntary in most of the places in which we lived. We were limited in where we could live, and what we could do. Judaism was the only way in which Jews could function. The Jewish community was the only community in which Jews could live. Jewish identity was mandatory, not voluntary.
Most of us do not live in this kind of environment. We are more like the Jews of Persia. Judaism is voluntary. Jobs are open to us. Where we live is not limited. Belonging to the Jewish community, or even identifying with it is completely a matter of choice. Why then, should people choose to identify?
I pray that we do not have a crisis like the Purim story that reminded us of our identity. If Judaism is going to be healthy, and a healthy choice for our people, it is going to have to be relevant. That is, we need to communicate what is genuinely beautiful in our tradition, and reevaluate those aspects that are not resonant, or may even be negative.
I believe that every generation that has faced a crisis has gone through this process. It is the positive response to our world that has made us The Eternal People.
Here is an excercise that might be interesting for you to do with your family or friends.Pretend that someone has come from very far away, maybe another planet, and has never heard of religion or culture or ethnicity at all as concepts. Explain to them what Judaism is, and who Jews are. I would love to hear some responses.