Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9- 31:30)
Efrat, Israel – These two Biblical portions of Nitzavim-Vayelech always precede Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of G-d’s universal majesty (Malkhuyot) – and this by Rabbinic mandate: “Ezra decreed for Israel that the chastisements of the Priestly Book of Leviticus (Behukotai) be publicly read before Shavuot, and that the chastisements of the Book of Deuteronomy be publicly read before Rosh Hashanah” (BT Megillah 31b).
There are two places in the Bible where the text warns the Israelites of the horrific causes of exile, persecution and suffering they will be forced to endure if they do not properly observe the Divine commands: in the portion of Behukotai in the Book of Leviticus and in the portion of Ki Tavo – which we read last week – in the Book of Deuteronomy. Nachmanides (the Ramban) teaches that the first instance of “curses” refers to the destruction of the first Temple and the second to the destruction of the Second Temple. Furthermore, it certainly seems logical that we read one portion of chastisements before we celebrate the Festival of the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot) – in order to emphasize the importance of maintaining the Torah, in order to highlight the existential stake every Israelite has in seeing to it that the entire nation remain true to the teachings of the Torah.
But why read chastisements before the Festival of Rosh Hashanah, when we declare the universal majesty of the Almighty G-d? Rosh Hashanah is the time when we pray to “perfect the world in the kingship of the Almighty,” when we commit ourselves to “turn all the wicked of the earth” to the ideals of ethical monotheism, when we anxiously await the period when “every creature will know that You created him, every formed being will understand that You formed him.” What has this universal message to do with the frightening warnings to the Israelites of the dire consequences in store for them if they neglect the Divine commands? And even more to the point, we read the curses of Ki Tavo last week; this week we read Nitzavim-Yayelech, and this Sabbath is the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah!
There is yet one more fundamental issue we must ponder before we can begin to gain clarity. The chastisements of Ki Tavo conclude with the Biblical words, “These are the words of the covenant (brit), which the Lord commanded Moses to establish with the Israelites in the land of Moab in addition to the covenant which He established with them in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 28:69). We have already seen the establishment of two covenants, the first one with the paterfamilias Abraham at the very dawn of Jewish history (the Covenant between the Pieces, Genesis 15:9-21), and the second with the Jewish nation at Sinai (Exodus 24:1-9); the covenant with Abraham established the nation-state of Israel and the covenant at Sinai established the religion of Israel. What is the significance of this third covenant at Moab, before Israel’s entry into the Holy Land? Why do we require an additional covenant – and what does it teach us?
The Talmud (Tractate Sotah), in a fascinating play on the Hebrew phrase Arvot Moab (literally, the Plains of Moab), maintains that this was the covenant of “co-signership,” of mutual responsibility and the inter-dependence of every Jew with every other Jew (arevut Moab, an arev being a co-signer or counter-signer to a legal obligation). But was this not the case as soon as we became a nation-state (at least in potential) at the time of Abraham? Do not family members share mutual responsibility, with each serving as guarantor for the other?
I believe that a careful reading of the Biblical text will provide the answer. The introduction to the chastisements – covenant of Ki Tavo emphasizes the fact that the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan River and take their place as a functioning nation-state amongst all other nation-states (Deuteronomy 27:2). They are then to set up large plastered stones upon which the words of the Torah – according to most interpretation, the Ten Commandments – are to be written, “clearly explained” (ba’er heitev); the Talmudic Sages interpret this to mean that they are to be translated into the 70 languages of the world (Deuteronomy 27:8, Commentaries ad loc). A sacrificial altar to G-d is to erected,” an altar of unhewn stones which iron shall not touch” (Deuteronomy 27:5).
The picture being presented is that of Israel, just about to join the world community of nations, establishing as its “calling-card”—the ten commandments of morality— placed at the entrance to the Holy Land and written in languages that every Gentile can understand. The prohibition of lifting iron to the stones of the altar is reminiscent of “turning swords into ploughshares; nation shall not lift up sword against nation and humanity shall not learn war any more” (Isaiah 2, Micah 4).
I would submit that this covenant is that of mutuality, inter-dependent co-signership, but not necessarily between Jew and Jew – that was already incorporated into the previous covenants – but rather between Israel and the other nations of the world. After all, when Abraham was originally elected, G-d commanded that “through you all the families of the world will be blessed” – through the message of Ethical Monotheism, the vision of a G-d who demands justice, compassion and peace, which Abraham’s descendants must convey to the world. This is the true mission of Israel, imminently critical in a global village, wherein every nation is dependent upon every other nation, wherein a terrorist nation — oblivious to the G-d of freedom who punished the totalitarian Pharaoh and commanded “Thou shall not murder” — can destroy the world if it has the nuclear capability to do so. This third covenant is the covenant of Israel’s responsibility to the world!
And so the covenant does not end with “These are the words of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 28:69), but continues to remind the Israelites how the Almighty punished Pharoah (Deuteronomy 29:1ff), and to define itself — in Nitzavim — as what G-d swore to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 29:12), which I would take to mean that Abraham would be the Father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:1-3) that on Mount Moriah G-d would be revealed to the world and all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:14,18), and that a nation and a congregation of nations would emerge from Jacob-Israel (Genesis 35:11). Hence G-d declares that “not with you alone do I establish this covenant… but rather with those who stand with us here today and those who do not stand with us here today.” (Deuteronomy 29:13,14). I take this to mean, both with the Israelites as well as with the Gentiles. And so the witnesses to this covenant are the heaven and the earth (Deuteronomy 30:19) – the entire world. And from this perspective, this covenant of our responsibility to all the nations extends to Nitzavim-Yayelech and most assuredly belongs before Rosh Hashanah, the day in which we re-establish our commitment “to perfect the world in the Kingship of G-d.”