Affirming the Covenant

Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20

D'Var Torah By: Rifat Sonsino

Every Jew Is Part of the Covenant

In his final appeal to the people of Israel, Moses reminds them that the covenant they are establishing with God will be valid for eternity. All Jews, he emphasizes, even those who are not born as yet, will be drawn into this pact: "I make this covenant ( b'rit , in Hebrew), with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).

According to some medieval commentators (see, for example Rashi, ad loc.), Moses spoke these words to the multitudes of Israel on the day of his death as an ethical will to his people. In reality, this speech, appearing in the closing sections of the Book of Deuteronomy, is a late composition and reflects the thinking of the Deuteronomic reformation that took place in the days of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah in the seventh century b.c.e.; the words are attributed to Moses, the great leader of the Exodus.

Question: who are those people "who are not with us here this day"? One could think of those who were away that day, maybe in the field or far away from the scene, but Deuteronomy 29:9-10 makes it clear that the whole community was present: "You stand this day, all of you" (Deuteronomy 29:9). And this "you" (in the plural) covers not only the priests, or the officials, but all Israel, present and future. According to Midrash Tanchuma , "the souls [of future generations] were present, even though they had no bodies as yet" ( Nitzavim 3; see also, Rashi and Sforno, on Deuteronomy 29:14).

According to Midrash Tanchuma , "the souls [of future generations] were present, even though they had no bodies as yet" ( Nitzavim 3; see also, Rashi and Sforno, on Deuteronomy 29:14).

The idea of binding future generations in a b'rit is out of the ordinary because contracts or covenants are usually binding on the parties who negotiate the deal, and not on their descendants. However, this biblical idea, though most unusual, is not unique. In the ancient Near East, for example, a treaty set up in the seventh century b.c.e. between the Assyrians and the city of Urakazabanu contains a clear statement indicating that the pact will have power over "you, your sons, your grandsons, all those who will live in the future after this treaty" (James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament [ ANET ] [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969], p. 534; see also the Treaty between KTK and Arpad, Sfire I A, ANET , p. 659).

Covenant Today

For contemporary Jews, what does it mean to be part of a covenant that was established for all times? Why should we be tied to a b'rit that our ancestors signed? The question is a serious one and needs to be answered by every single Jew today.

Throughout Jewish history, most Jews felt bound by the mythical covenant that was entered into at Sinai/Horeb a few thousand years ago and have tried to live up to it even during the days of Hellenic or Roman persecutions, or in more recent times, during the pogroms and assaults on Jews, including the Holocaust. The religious discipline that was established in the wilderness period has commanded the attention and commitment of Torah-loving Jews, who were loyal to it even, at times, at the risk of their lives. They maintained that this covenant gave them their distinct identity, which was worth preserving and passing on to future generations. "We are who we are," remarks Plaut, "because of our ancestors and their achievements and failures" (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary , rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,378).

Obviously, some Jews could not live by the requirements of the tradition and gave up their Jewishness. There are those who actually converted for social, political, or religious reasons (such as the German poet Heinrich Heine, the Prussian philosopher Karl Marx, the Russian writer Boris Pasternak, and the cardinal emeritus of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger). Others became self-hating Jews (like Dan Burros, the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan, or Leonard Holstein, a member of the American Nazi Party) or simply lived nominally as Jews and very much in the periphery of Jewish life (like many contemporary celebrities who rarely acknowledge their Jewish background).

On the other hand, there are many Jews who take the covenant seriously and try to live at least in accordance with its spirit, if not always following its every demand. In the mid-1950s, some committed Jews in the United States even created a theological movement that stressed the centrality of Israel's covenant with God. These so-called "covenant theologians" (among whom one can mention Arnold J. Wolf, Steven S. Schwarzchild, and Eugene B. Borowitz) try to formulate a theology that responds to the needs of our time, without abandoning the rich tradition that stands behind it.
 

The Challenge

The covenant of Sinai/Horeb represents constant challenges for the modern Jew. Those of us who take Judaism seriously and are concerned about its future are always struggling to define its implications for our time. Tradition, I maintain, has a hold on us and has certain requirements and expectations. Therefore, we need to find the best way to keep its spirit alive, through study, practice, and an outlook on life that balances the needs of the heart, as well as the mind. Affirming the covenant is a daily act and should be done with full recognition of its impact on us and on our children.

The Bible states "not with you alone" (Deuteronomy 29:13), and that means us and those who will come after us, hopefully for a long, long time.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino , Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom, in Needham, Massachusetts, and a member of the theology department at Boston College.

 

Why Maintain the Covenant?

Daver Acher By: Shira Milgrom

On so many levels-physical, spiritual, emotional, and even cosmic-the Jewish covenant with God makes claims upon us. On the physical level, we are Jewish because we are family: we are born into or adopted by this family, and therefore once we are Jewish, we are Jewish for life. Love it or hate it, stay in it or leave it, it is still our family. Our children are born Jewish, whether they like it or not. Judaism is first not about faith but about family, and as Rabbi Sonsino reminds us, this "family" is bound in an eternal covenant with God.

The covenant is not only about family; it is also about purpose. The Torah is, after all, our story of why the world needs Jews. (These are the cosmic implications of the covenant.) The Torah's narrative opens with God's two failed attempts to covenant with all of humanity: the first creation is wiped out in the Flood because of total moral failure (Genesis 6:11-7:23), and the second creation quickly devolves into fragmentation and alienation culminating in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

It is at this point in our Jewish story that God approaches Abram with words that are echoed in this week's portion: ". . . I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you . . . ; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3). Sections of Genesis 12 and 18 can be paraphrased as follows: "If you will be in covenant with Me," says God, "then through you all the families of the earth will be blessed, not just you. But this covenant brings both blessing and curse. You will need to fight for justice, even though that will be unpopular with those in power (hence the curse, or risk), but this will bring you a reason for being on this earth (a blessing)."

The opening words of this week's parashah remind us that every Jew is part of the covenant. Indeed, it is eternally there for us, waiting for us to choose it. The Genesis echo is heard here: "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Most of all, this is a covenant of life: choosing to be Jewish gives us ways to recognize and bless the holiness in life and the obligation to live in response to that awareness. If we are true to our covenant, then someday all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York.

Reference Materials

Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,381;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234