Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – The covenant of which we read in our portion of Ki Tavo began to be described some 16 chapters ago in the portion of Re’eh—with the blessings which were to be on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal—and concludes with the blessing that is life and the curse that is death, commanding, Israel to choose life, at the end of the portion of Nitzavim. This is clearly a third and new covenant, in addition to the religious covenant which God made with Israel at Horeb and to be added to the original national Covenant between the Pieces (Gen. 15) in which God guaranteed Abraham eternal descendants and a familial homeland.
Most importantly, what did this Covenant, entered into by God and Israel directly before their entry into the Promised Land, add to the mission of Israel? The place of Covenantal agreement was Arvot Moav, the Plains of Moab at the entry point of Israel from the position of Trans-Jordan, that was the place of the two mountains, (the blessings and the curses) near the City of Shechem (Nablus). The Talmud (B.T. Sota 37b) enjoys a play on words, transforming arvot into arevut, or co-signership, responsibility. Responsibility for what and for whom? In our portion, the Israelites are commanded to take up twelve large stones on the day in which they cross the Jordan River, to build an altar of unknown stones without using any implements of iron, and to rejoice with whole burnt offerings and peace offerings just as they had done forty years before upon sealing their second covenant at Horeb-Sinai (Ex. 24:1-4). They were commanded “to write upon the stones all the words of the Torah, explained very well [be’er hetev] ” (Deut. 27:8) —interpreted by our Sages and cited by Rashi as translated into seventy languages.
Logic would dictate that it was the twelve imprecations on Mount Ebal which were written on the twelve stones, each translated into seventy languages.
The crimes meriting the curses were reminiscent of the legal code of the Decalogue and even the Seven Moral Laws of the Noachides, cursing idolaters, degraders of parents, movers of boundaries of land, those who block the path taken by a blind person, perverters of justice due the proselyte, orphan and widow, sexual molesters and murderers.
The list of imprecations begins against the ish (generic human being) who makes a molten image, the noun Israelite never appearing in this context, however the introduction is presented by “Moses and the Kohanim- Levites to all of Israel, saying ‘be attentive and hearken, O Israel; this day you have become a nation [Am] to the Lord your God’” (Deut. 27:9).
I would submit that this Third Covenant of Responsibility is our responsibility as the Jewish nation to the rest of the nations on the planet, to all of humanity.
Way back at the dawn of history, before God entered into the Covenant between the Pieces promising Abraham eternal seed and a national homeland; He challenged the first Hebrew patriarch: “I shall make you a great nation and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3); God chose Abraham because Abraham was teaching his household the path of the Lord to do compassionate and moral justice”; and before the Second Religio-Legal Covenant of the Decalogue, God charged Israel with becoming a Kingdom of priest-teachers (to humanity) and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6).
So now, before our entry into Israel and our assumption—for the first time—of our national status, we are given the responsibility of teaching the nations of the world the message of Divine morality, the prerequisite of a world of peace and life rather than a nightmare of destruction and death: compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
Our Kohanim-Levites gave this mission to the entire Jewish people, near Shechem which is the burial place of the universalist Joseph, who brought God of morality to Egypt and dreamed of reaching the sun, moon and stars. And if we fail in this mission, then the result will be a world of mayhem and darkness, with Israel as its most vulnerable victims hence the chastisements (Deut.28), which are even more chilling than the blood which is inextricably part of the earlier two covenants (the blood of circumcision and the blood sprinkled on the Divine altar and over the Israelites at Sinai).
We have now returned to our nation-state, and we are truly at center stage of world history; extremist Islam threatens to plunge the world into a black period of religious oppression, terrorist domination, and the jihadist embrace of brute force power.
Operation Protective Edge was an example of life against death, blessing against curse, freedom against slavery. May we continue to carry out our responsibility with courage and resolve; may the Almighty continue to give strength to His people and bless Israel and the world with peace.