The Covenant on the Timeline

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago.

In the Book of Exodus, we read that God offered a covenant to the people of Israel. God acted from the top of Mount Sinai and the mountain shook and smoke went up from it and there was thunder and lightning. And the people standing at the base of the mountain agreed to do it and hear it.  

But did anything like that happen in real time?

A lot of sophisticated people would call that entire narrative “metaphorical.” That is, not literally true, but explaining one thing (perhaps an emotional experience) by comparing it to another (the Creator of the universe shaking a mountain and issuing ten basic rules for life in community in partnership with that Creator). Wow! The emotional experience that turned out best “explained” in such terms must have been a doozy!

Anyway, here are some examples of actions in real time that weren’t metaphoric. Let’s go back to an area of the Middle East called Palestine. Since about 1918, it had been under a British Mandate, the Brits having taken it over from the Ottoman Turks who, before World War I, had governed it for the previous three hundred years. Under the terms of the Mandate, the plan was eventually to allow a Jewish “homeland” to set itself up in that region.

By 1945, the Nazis had lost the Second World War, which meant that the furnaces at Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Bergen Belsen etc., into which they’d shoveled six million Jews, were shut down. All the same, looking ahead, long-term Jewish existence would be untenable without a state and the means for its defense. If such a state were to declare its sovereign independence (as it would in fact do in 1948), it could expect an attack from the surrounding armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  

That being the situation in prospect, the Mandate authorities forbade the Jews to purchase or manufacture arms!  

Yosef Avidar, my mother’s first cousin by marriage, had been a senior commander in the underground army of pre-state Israel, the Haganah. He was tasked with getting weapons. “I found that worst of all was the lack of bullets,” he recalled. His unit had already learned to manufacture 600 Sten sub-machine guns. “If we would produce enough bullets, we could increase Sten production.” But where could they situate an underground bullet-manufacturing facility?

Well, underground – and that’s not a metaphor! “If you wish to do something in secrecy, do it under the enemy’s nose,” Avidar commented. “This is the one place they will never think to search.” The facility they dug, very near a major British army base, was about the size of a tennis court and twenty-five feet deep. Its above-ground secret entrances were located in the bakery and laundry rooms of a newly-populated kibbutz. The noise of the washing machines, which also served the laundry needs of British military personnel, masked the ear-splitting noise of the bullet-making machinery down below ground.

The facility produced over two million bullets – crucial to winning Israel’s War of Independence. Doing all this, they were making their plans and describing their actions in Hebrew – the Biblical language that hadn’t been in that kind of ordinary, nonritual use for over two thousand years.

Here’s another non-metaphoric action. An Israeli cousin-by-marriage of mine had a father in the Haganah. One time her father took a drive, his wife and children with him in the car, all dressed suitably for a country outing. Under a blanket behind the back seat of the car, a cache of arms was hidden. 

“What’s under the blanket?” asked a British officer, when they were stopped at a checkpoint.  

“Arms!” joked my cousin’s father jovially. Not wanting to miss the joke, the officer joined in the good-natured laughter, waving them all through.

My first cousin Nomi was employed by the British Army during World War II. Noticing that she was young and pretty, one of the officers volunteered to give her a cost-free, after-hours introduction to marksmanship. Obligingly, she went along to his lesson at the shooting range, where she would take aim and carefully miss – pretending that she did not already know very well how to aim, fire and hit the target.

Jews carry the burden of historical memory. Did the Mount Sinai covenant actually happen – on the same timeline that we still walk? Or are Jews ”remembering” something that never did happen, deluded by what psychiatrists call a “screen memory”? How can we know? How do we fit that event (or that nonevent) into the timeline of our own lives?

In trying to sort this question out, I have only two clues. The first is the extraordinary degree of ever-mounting negative attention given to the State of Israel. It’s not the genocidal dictatorship of China. It’s not the brutal theocracy of Iran. It’s not Putin’s Russia taking its army across a border into a neighboring country. It’s not repressive Cuba. Why do the fashionable people care so much? Could it be because modern Israel reminds them – with its Hebrew language and passionately assumed continuity with the Biblical predecessor – that maybe the covenant event actually happened in ancient history and, conceivably, was never abrogated? 

The other clue comes from my personal experience. I have more than once found that I could predict the onset of anti-semitism – sometimes in close friends – when something occurs on the timeline of their own lives that they can’t absorb, face or properly deal with. For example, in a small town in Maine I had a friend who’d been a German war bride, and immigrated to this country with a husband who’d turned out to be a brute. After her divorce, she’d courageously and inventively made a living, running a shop in town and then a small café, while she raised her two children alone. Then at a certain point, her fortunes took a downward turn. Her daughter’s travel agency couldn’t compete with equivalent online services. Other projects ran into similar roadblocks. She began to chain smoke and talk pessimistically about the delusiveness of the American dream. Then one day I noticed Protocols of the Elders of Zion on her coffee table.  

“Why are you reading that book?” I asked her. “That was Hitler’s bedtime reading!” Argument was useless. The death camps never existed. They were hostels for Jews who happened to come down with tuberculosis. However, the Jews really were a toxic conspiracy. And so on.

It happens when there’s a perceived break in the timeline connecting their past to their future. Then, by a strange kind of alchemy, the missing piece of time gets delusively restored as the claim that “the Jews” have absconded with it. The Jews usurped it – took away something to which the Jews had no rightful claim. It’s projection all right, but projection of a very specific kind. It has to do with time – and with history.

The memory of Jewish history is borne, as an ineluctable burden and potential blessing, by the Jews themselves. But it is also borne – either as God’s pilot project of covenant or as the missing segment in the anti-semite’s timeline – by those who are not born into the passion of Jewish history.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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