Engaging the Youth: Lessons from Sinai

February 5, 2024

In the Torah portion of Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24-18), we encounter a profound moment in the journey of the Israelite people. Following the awe-inspiring revelation at Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given, a list of detailed laws is presented. This sets the stage for a significant event: the covenant ceremony (Exodus 24:3-11). It’s a moment where the Jewish people firmly commit to follow God’s laws, marking a pivotal point in their spiritual journey.

The ceremony itself is rich with symbolism and meaning. It features offerings, the writing and reading of the Book of the Covenant, and the sprinkling of blood. I would like to focus on two features that stand out for thier deep significance: the altar made of twelve stones and the involvement of young boys, or youth, in bringing the offerings.

Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord. (Exodus 24:4-5)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wonders why it was necessary to build an altar of twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. If the tribes were already physically present at the ceremony, why the need for symbolic representation? Furthermore, who are these “young men” who were designated to bring offerings?

Rabbi Hirsch offers an insightful interpretation of these two features. He suggests that the stones weren’t meant to represent the tribes present at that moment. Instead, they symbolized the future of Israel; the members of the Jewish nation across all generations. It wasn’t just those standing at Sinai who were part of the covenant, but all their future descendants too. The covenant wasn’t a momentary agreement; it was eternal, meant to endure through the ages.

The role of the youth in this ceremony is equally significant. While traditionally, biblical commentators have understood the word youth to refer to the first-born who had been destined to serve in the Temple, Hirsch offers a different perspective. He sees these young people as “the immediate bearers of the future.” This idea highlights the importance of the youth and the role they play in carrying traditions forward. Involving them in the covenant ceremony was a powerful statement: the future of the covenant, the continuation of the journey that began at Sinai, rests in their hands.

This interpretation carries a profound message about the nature of the covenant and the way it is meant to be passed down through generations. It serves as a reminder that the laws and teachings given at Sinai were not just for those who stood there at that moment. They were for all the generations to come. Each generation is a link in a chain that stretches back to Sinai and forward into the future.

Moreover, the active involvement of the youth in the covenant ceremony underscores the importance of engaging younger generations. It’s a call to ensure that the traditions, values, and laws that define a community are not just taught but are brought to life in ways that resonate with the young. They are not just passive recipients of a legacy; they are active bearers of the future, shaping and carrying the covenant forward. If we don’t engage the youth when they are young, we are at greater risk of losing them as they grow older.

In every generation, the story of Sinai is retold, the covenant is renewed, and the youth are invited to take their place in the ongoing story of their people. The twelve stones of the altar and the youth bringing offerings remind us that the covenant is not just a pact with the past. It’s a promise for the future, a living bond that each new generation embraces and makes their own, continuing the eternal journey that began so many generations ago at the foot of Mount Sinai.

In contemporary times, one of the most pressing challenges faced by both Judaism and Christianity is the engagement and retention of the youth. Maintaining the vibrancy and relevance of religious traditions among young people is a complex task in an era marked by rapid technological advancements and shifting cultural landscapes. However, the teachings of the Torah, especially as highlighted in the covenant ceremony of Mishpatim, offer timeless wisdom on this matter. The active role of the youth in this pivotal event underscores the crucial importance of involving them not just as observers, but as vital participants in religious life.

By ensuring that our practices and teachings resonate with the youth, by listening to their perspectives, and by empowering them to be active participants in their spiritual journey, we can safeguard the continuity and richness of our faith.

 

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Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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