One More Covenant, Together

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley




One More Covenant, Together

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



After reading the terrifying curses and afflictions last week in Parashat Ki Tavo, the content in the middle of Chapter 29 in our parasha becomes quite surprising.  Having begun the preparation for renewing the covenant (29:1-8) last week with the words "And Moshe called to all of Israel and said to them…" and "And you shall observe the WORDS OF THIS BRIT (covenant) and perform them," our parasha begins with the actual establishment of the BRIT with "You are all standing today before the Lord your God… to enter into THE BRIT OF HASHEM YOUR GOD and into His oath which the Lord your God seals with you today… Not with you alone do I seal THIS BRIT and this oath…" (29:9-13).  This theme of sealing the BRIT continues throughout the chapter – five times the word BRIT appears in this chapter alone (verses 8, 11, 13, 20, 24).  In addition, the repetition also connects chapter 29 with the conclusion of chapter 28, where we read, "These are the words of the BRIT that God commanded Moshe to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moav, aside from the BRIT that he made with them at Chorev."  As such, it appears that while chapter 28 marks the conclusion of the speech of the commandments that began in chapter 5 and continued to chapter 26, and provides the subsequent blessing and curse for their fulfillment.  In chapter 29, now that the nation has been made aware of the details of the covenant, Moshe actually carries out the ceremonial sealing of the covenant.


However, there is an important question that needs asking.  Why the need for one more BRIT, another agreement with Hashem?  Surely what occurred at Chorev (Har Sinai) was binding?  What occurred in the intervening 40 years that required that the covenant be reestablished?  Here are the opening words of the Yalkut Shimoni to our parasha:


God made three covenants with Israel: One – when they left Egypt and one – in Chorev and one – here. Why did Hashem make a covenant with them here? Because the one that He made in Chorev they nullified and said: “These are thy gods, O Israel” (Shemot 32:4). Therefore, He once again made a covenant with them in Chorev and fixed a curse upon it to whoever reneges upon it.


According to the Midrash, the behavior of the Jewish people at the sin of the Golden Calf effectively nullified the previous agreement at Har Sinai.  However, according to this approach, the astute reader will immediately note that this Midrash means that for forty years the Jewish people have been left in a form of legal limbo, with nothing to bind them to Hashem (and that this began not at the sin of the spies, but at the Golden Calf).  Can we envision a situation where Am Yisrael would go for almost half a century without any relationship with Hashem, despite the kindnesses that he would show them?  Let us examine a different approach in the Midrash to explain why Hashem felt the need to establish another BRIT, an idea that is echoed by Rashi in his commentary at the end of our chapter:


Mekhilta Parashat Be-Chodesh 5:

Rabbi says (it is written “I am Hashem your God” in the singular): to announce the praise of Israel when they all stood on Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, they were given one equal heart to receive the heavenly kingdom with joy. Also (that is, another reason for “your God” in the singular) they were pledging themselves for each other. God appeared to them in order to make a covenant with them not only concerning revealed [matters] alone; but also regarding the secret ones as it is stated (Deuteronomy 29:28) “the secret things belong to Hashem our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever”. They said to him: Regarding revealed matters we make a covenant with You and not on the secret ones, that there be not one of us that sin in secret and the public be liable as guarantor”


Rashi Deuteronomy chapter 29, verse 28:

The secret things belong to Hashem our God: and if you say “what can we do, you punish the majority for the thoughts of an individual, as it is stated (verse 17) “lest there be among you any man, etc.” and subsequently (verse 21) “when they see the plagues of that land.” After all a person does not know the secrets of his friend! “I do not punish you regarding the secrets which are Hashem your God’s. He will take payment from that individual. Regarding those [matters] revealed to us however and to our children, [we are obligated] to destroy the evil from our midst. If we do not administer judgement over them, the majority will be punished.


There are dots [in the Hebrew text] over “to us and to our children” to indicate that even with regard to the secrets, the majority were not to be punished until they crossed the Jordan. From having taken upon themselves the oath in Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eibal they became pledged for one another.


What our chapter adds, according to this approach, is the sense of mutual responsibility. Each Jew now accepts responsibility for the actions of each other.   Last week, I was privileged to hear the following a fascinating insight from the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, Rav Yaakov Medan.  Most people assume that this covenant creates a sense of community among what had previously been a disparate group of individuals.   This is incorrect suggests Rav Medan.  In the desert, there was no private realm.  With the entire people encamped within very small confines, the idea that a person could quietly sin in the privacy of their tent, or slink off somewhere in the wilderness to engage in idolatry was ludicrous.  However, the entry into the land of Israel created the new idea of “private space”.  With the people spread out over the hills of Judah, the plains of Moab, along the coast from Dan to Beersheba, now the opportunity existed for people to live and act outside the prying eyes of their neighbours.  This is a theme that occurs throughout the blessings and curses of Chapter 27:


Cursed be the man that makes a graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret. And all the people shall answer and say: Amen… Cursed be he that smites his neighbor in secret. And all the people shall say: Amen…


In fact, says Rav Medan, those curses where the words “in secret” aren’t mentioned are by their very nature not sins that can be performed in public.  Because of this new dynamic, Hashem needed to make this new BRIT, so that the concept of mutual responsibility can be implanted in the people.  We conclude with the inspiring words of Rav Soloveitchik from his seminal essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”:


…Thirdly: co-operation – suffering is expressed in co-operative emotion – obligation and responsibility. When Israel left Egypt, Moshe and Aharon fell upon their faces and pleaded before God saying: “God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will Thou be angry with all the congregation? (Numbers 16:22). This prayer did what the shepherds of Israel had wanted; God agreed that they acted nicely and punished only Korah’s community. However, this kindness God demonstrated only temporarily. For generations, the “I” was trapped in the transgression of the other person, if he is able rebuke him, to protest and cause him to repent. There is a responsibility – a collective halakhic-moral responsibility on the people of Israel. Individuals are united into one halakhic-moral unity, having one conscience and an all-encompassing normative consciousness. The halakha already determined, that every Israelite is a guarantor for the next and that a person who has already fulfilled his obligations can acquit his friend who has not yet carried out the tenet. He is absolutely not exempt, concerning the performed matter, from doing on behalf of many others their duty. The “I” does not exempt itself, as long as another person has not performed his responsibilities.


There is a special covenant made on the mutual responsibility of the children of Israel. This covenant is expressed in the blessings and curses on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eibal. It is ascribed to the ideal of a nation that was shown to Moshe in Egypt from which the covenant of mutual responsibility sprouted and grew. The lord of the Prophets in relating to the mutual responsibility covenant emphatically said (Deuteronomy 29:12), “That He may establish thee today for a people to Himself and that He may be to thee a God”. He returned to the form of the covenant in Egypt (Exodus 6) “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God”. Here the co-operative destiny was elevated from the plane of social-political suffering to the plane of halakhic-moral co-operative responsibility. We are all mutually responsible for one another, as it states (Deuteronomy 29:26): “those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever.” (See Sota 37, page 2; Sanhedrin 43, page 2; Rashi on Nitzavim 29:28.).


Shabbat Shalom.