“Shabbat Shalom” – Parshat Nitzavim 5779


This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” has been sponsored
by the Charif Family of Sydney Australia
 in memory of Harry Sher (Hillel ben Chona)

whose 22nd Yartzheit is on 2 Tishrei

Shabbat Shalom: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin   

Efrat, Israel “You are all standing before God your Lord – the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your bailiffs, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, even the hewer of your wood, and the drawer of your water. [The purpose is that] you should enter into a covenant with God, and into His oath, that He is making with you today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9–11)

We read a bit further on, in the book of Joshua (8:33–34), “And all of Israel and its elders, its heads of tribes and its judges…. Priests and Levites, half facing Mount Gerizim and half facing Mount Eyval… Joshua read all the words of the Torah, the blessing and the curse.” Why must Moses make a covenant with the nations “today,” in the plains of the Moab, so similar to the Covenant which will soon be made with Joshua on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eyval? 

The Midrash Tanĥuma, which is cited by Rashi and which opened our last commentary, provides an important insight by teaching us that what necessitated the Third Covenant is the sin of the Golden Calf. It might have been thought that once the Israelites formed and worshipped a golden calf – only forty days after they had ratified the covenant at Sinai and on the very watch of Moses – their evil deed of treachery and faithlessness, idolatry and adultery, abrogated the covenant forever. The Almighty therefore enters into a third covenant during Moses’ lifetime as an affirmation of the truth that whereas a contract can be broken, a covenant is irrevocable; despite the backsliding of Israel, their covenant with their God who is always ready to accept their repentance remains eternally validated. “You have greatly angered the Almighty, but nevertheless you have not been destroyed, and behold you are standing here today.” (See “Two Destructions and Two Redemptions.”)

I would suggest another significance to this third covenant, and by so doing explain why and how the Israelites could have stooped to idolatry so soon after the glory of the revelation. In addition, we shall interpret the unique language of the Third Covenant itself.

What initially strikes us about the Third Covenant – and the manner in which it clearly differs from its predecessors – is its democratic element. Every single Israelite is summoned and included, from the chairman of the board to the lowly water carrier: “the heads of your tribes… your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, even the hewer of your wood, and the drawer of your water” (Deut. 29:9–10).

In terms of the ancient world, what could possibly be more allinclusive and democratic?

This town-hall meeting is in sharp contrast to the Sinai covenant, as recorded in Parashat Mishpatim: “All of you must bow down at a distance. Only Moses shall then approach God. The others may not come close, and the people may not go up with him” (Ex. 24:1–2). The extraordinary demonstration of God’s transcendent presence upon Mount Sinai necessitated warnings and boundaries. The Revelation was clearly aimed for the entire nation, but God spoke to Moses in a special and unique way; the rest of the nation was warned to keep its distance from the frenzied fire of faith, which has the capacity to consume as well as to construct. Hence it was Moses who received the bulk of the Revelation, and he served as the intermediary to convey the divine will to the nation (Deut. 5:4, 20–25).

On this basis, we can readily understand why and how the Israelites could succumb to idolatry so soon after the Revelation; since the Revelation revolved so centrally about Moses, when Moses failed to descend from the mountain at the expected time, the people felt bereft and orphaned. After all, the nation related to Moses more than to God – and in their frightened and desperate moment, due to the absence of Moses, they turned to the familiar Egyptian idols.

Enter the covenant in our portion of Nitzavim, the covenant that stresses the truth that God has a unique relationship with every single Israelite – Jew and stranger, man and woman, rich and poor, elders and children, wood-choppers and tribal chiefs – and not only with Moses or the elite class of scholars and pietists. The Third Covenant attempts to correct the previous misimpression that God was primarily concerned with the religious elite; God entered into a covenant with every single Jew!

Furthermore, unlike the Sinai Covenant, the present covenant takes into account not only the totality of all Jews, an across-the-board horizontal gathering, but it’s also a vertical covenant, extending both backwards and forwards, spanning even past and future generations: “Not with you alone do I make this covenant…. But with those who stand here this day before the Lord our God…as well as with those who are not here with us this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). The Third Covenant includes all of historic Israel, Knesset Yisrael entire, past, present, and future; it emphasizes the all-inclusive historical and eternal aspect of the relationship between God and Israel.

Years before the United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, an earlier plan was offered which would have given the aspiring state a very meager parcel of land. David Ben Gurion, the chairman of the Histadrut HaTzionit, was unsure as to whether or not to accept the offer. He greatly respected Yitzĥak Tabenkin, a leading Labor Zionist of that period, and so he uncharacteristically agreed to abide by Tabenkin’s decision. Tabenkin asked for another twenty-four hours, insisting that he must first seek counsel with two individuals. The next day, he advised Ben Gurion to reject the plan. “I accept your decision,” said the modern-day Lion of Judah, “but just tell me by whom you were advised?” “I had to ask two very important individuals,” said Tabenkin, “my grandfather and my grandson; I took counsel with my grandfather who died ten years ago, and with my grandson who is not yet born.” Yitzĥak Tabenkin fully understood the significance of the Covenant of Arvot Moab, the Third Covenant.

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