When Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah, they do much more than passively receive it. They actively enter into a brit, a covenant, with God. The brit preceded the giving of the commandments and was the framing of it: "And now, if you will listen to My voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be unto Me a treasured possession from all the nations... And Moshe came, and called to the elders of the nation, and he placed before them all of these things that God had commanded him. And the entire nation answered together and said, "Everything that God has said we will do." (Shemot 19:5-8). The brit also came after the Ten Commandments, as the opening of parashat Mishpatim: "And these are the laws which you shall place before them" (Shemot 21:1) - echoing the "placing before them" of Shemot 19:7, the intention being, place it before them for their approval and their willing acceptance. And it is the close of that same parasha: "And Moshe came and he related to the people all of the words of God and all the laws" - the "words" presumably referring to the aseret ha'devarim and the "laws" to the mishpatim of parashat Mishpatim - "and the entire nation responded as one voice and said, all the words which God has spoken we will do... And he took the book of the covenant and he read it to the people, and they said - everything that God has spoken we will do and we will hear. And Moshe took the blood and he sprinkled it on the people and he said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which God has made with you concerning all these commands" (Shemot 24:3-8). The laws are placed before them, they accept them, and they enter into a brit with God, a binding, two-sided covenant.
Bnei Yisrael, thus, are not just commanded, but actively and freely accept the commandment of God and enter into a brit with God. Why, we may ask, does commandedness not suffice? Would they not be obligated to follow God's command even had they not entered into a brit? In fact, the shift from unilateral commadedness to a two-sided brit occurs much earlier, at the beginning of Bereishit. Adam and Chava had been given a unilateral Divine command, and they had violated it. The next time God commands, God does so in the framework of a brit, a relationship: "And I will establish my brit with you, and you will come into the ark..." (Breishit 6:28), and later, when Noah and his family exit the ark: "One who spill the blood of man/ By man shall his blood be spilled / Because in the Image of God / God made man... And I, behold I will establish my brit with you and with your seed after you... And I will establish my brit with you and no more will all flesh be destroyed from the waters of a flood, and there will no longer be a flood to destroy the land." (Breishit 9:6, 8, 11). While the brit with Noah relates to the protection of the human species and the world, and not to the keeping of mitzvot per se, the mitzvot nevertheless are given in the context of this committed relationship, and not merely dictated unilaterally from the all-powerful Lawgiver.
The significance and specificity of brit deepens next when God commands Avraham to inscribe in his flesh the sign of the brit, and commands him in the brit milah. There, the purpose of the brit is not merely the survival of the human or animal species, but "an everlasting brit between Me and you, and between your children after you for all generations, to be to you as a God and to your children after you." (Breishit 17:7). It is the very relationship between God and the children of Avraham. And finally, in our parasha, in Yitro, the brit deepens further. It is a brit wherein God chooses the nation of Bnei Israel, and where our end of the brit is not just one of identity, but to live up to a code of standards, to do "all the words and all the laws."
What is the difference between being commanded unilaterally and between accepting the commands as part of a brit? It is the difference between being a child and being an adult. Adam and Chava in Gan Eden were like children - they had no real, mature opinions of their own, no real values of their own, no autonomy. They were unilaterally commanded, and all that was asked from them was to obey. All they could do to assert their autonomy was rebel - was to refuse to follow God's command. Once, however, they rebelled, and were kicked out of Gan Eden, kicked out of the parental home, only then did they become autonomous beings able to make their own value judgments - "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Now, in the post-Edenic world, for humans to reenter into a relationship with God, we must do so as adults. Not only to be commanded and to follow, but to bring the entirety of our will, our personality, our values and our autonomy, to bring all of this willingly and freely into a relationship with God. God wants more than followers; God wants partners.
This is a religion of adulthood, not one of blind faith and obedience, not one of just Commander and commanded, but one of parties of a brit. One in which, in our role of freely accepting the mitzvot, in our role of interpreting and applying the mitzvot, in the very enterprise of Torah she'b'al peh, of the Oral Torah, we are partners with God. Only parties to a brit can both be deeply and passionately committed to its full observance, and at the same time say: "Why should our father's name be lost to his clan because he had no son? (Bamidbar 27:3) or say: "Why should we be excluded from bringing God's sacrifice in its appointed time together with Bnei Yisrael? (Bamidbar 9:7). To be in a bilateral relationship means to be both fully committed and at the same time a full participant with the totality of one's personality, and without silencing the part of one's soul that asks: "How does this make sense? How is this just?" To be a party to a brit is to work to find an answer within the context of the brit.
To be a party to a brit also means something else. It means that we do not discharge our obligation just by doing what is commanded of us. If we are truly partners then we must internalize the commitments and values of the brit, we must follow the na'aseh, we will do, with the nishma, we will listen, we will internalize. We must share and participate in the brit, in its visions and its goals. We must see ourselves as partnering with God in all aspects of our lives, and must work to bring the world to a better place, to a fuller realization of the values and the vision of the Torah, of the brit.
In many ways, we have largely abdicated these responsibilities of brit and have regressed to living a religion of mere commadedness, living our religious lives as children and not as adults. We find ourselves afraid to ask the questions that deeply trouble us, and - if we do - to be willing to put in the hard work that is required to find answers within Torah, to find answers while holding fast to the brit. And we do not want to be troubled to have to do more than keep the mitzvot, we don't want to be told that we need to bring Torah values into our day-to-day (secular) life, and certainly not that we have to internalize a Torah vision into our own, and to define our ambitions, and our place in the world, on the basis of such a brit. Perhaps we are afraid that this would require a total submerging of our own identity, but that is not the nature of a brit. A true brit is the fusing of the fullness of our own personality with the demands, commands, and vision of God and Torah. This is our challenge - will we continue living the childish religion of Gan Eden, of simple commadedness, or will we be able to face up to the challenge of living the religious life of an adult, the religious life of the Torah of Har Sinai, the Torah of a brit?