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Expanding the Covenant

  • Expanding the Covenant

    Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
D'var Torah By: 

At the edge of the Promised Land, Moses convenes his people one last time, to draw them into the covenant between them and their God. This great gathering of the masses evokes the last great gathering, forty years earlier, when the people of Israel were encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Then, in the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses:

"Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes . . . Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, 'Be ready for the third day; [the men among] you should not go near a woman' " (Exodus 19:10, 14–15).

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, 1 added the (corrective!) phrase in brackets, [the men among]. The Hebrew reads simply, "You should not go near a woman." This startling direct address to men calls into question who is being covenanted at Mt. Sinai. To whom is God (or Moses) speaking? It is possible to read this formative narrative of the Jewish people in a way in which only men are brought into the covenant, and indeed, many still do.

Deuteronomy, however, offers a different read:

"You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God's people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (Deuteronomy 29:9—13).

The text says, "all of you!" You might wonder, does it matter which way we tell the story? After all, we in progressive religious communities already inhabit an egalitarian world. I learned thirty years ago from my youngest child to what extent the story makes a difference. Liore was then three years old, and my husband was giving her a bath. Out of the blue she said to David, "Abba, God likes boys better than girls."

Had I been there, I'm sure I would have immediately jumped in and said, "Oh no, sweetheart, that is not true!"

My husband was wiser. "What makes you say that?" he asked.

Her answer was that God has boy parts, so God likes boys better.

For all of us who think that describing God as "He" doesn't really mean "He," think again. But even more important than learning the power of the pronoun, I learned from Liore that the way we imagine God, or imagine ourselves within our sacred stories, profoundly impacts how we see ourselves. Because Liore imagined God as male, she imagined that in some cosmic way she was worth less in the universe.

Stories matter. Nitzavim gives us a clear, moving, and eloquent reread of who is included in this covenant—all of us—young and old, rich and poor, male and female. "You stand this day, all of you."

  1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 475)

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism, and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.

A Plea for Unity
Davar Acher By: 
David J. Meyer

When Moses addresses the Israelite nation before his passing, he goes to great lengths to assure that everyone gathered is explicitly included as part of the covenantal community. Rabbi Milgrom sees this explicit listing of those included in the covenant as something of a corrective, a tikkun from the moment at Sinai when Moses spoke directly to the men. We might also see in Moses's words yet another tikkun that likewise hearkens back to that earlier episode at Sinai a generation earlier.

"Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain ( vayichan-sham Yisrael), and Moses went up to God . . ." (Exodus 19:2). The Hebrew text is somewhat surprising. Generally, as in the first part of the verse, the Israelites are referred to in the plural. But here we find the Israelites regarded using the singular form (vayichan, rather than vayachanu), a detail the eminent commentator, Rashi, sees as significant. He explains, "They were like one person with one heart, unlike other encampments, which were filled with complaining and disagreements." That is to say, the unity of the Jewish people both enabled and prepared our ancestors to receive the revelation at Sinai.

However, that harmony was soon shattered, as the people lost faith in Moses and God, and responded with the building of the Golden Calf. Again here, the Hebrew text is somewhat unexpected, for the people exclaim, using a plural form: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!"1 (Exodus 32:8).Our Sages tell us that the plural form of the Hebrew reveals that each and every tribe created its own Golden Calf (Midrash on Psalms 3:3). At the moment when they returned to idolatrous worship, the Israelite nation was splintered, and once again, divisiveness and discord ruled the day, and became the norm for the next forty years of their desert wandering.

So we see in Moses's address to the Israelites before entering the Promised Land, a fervent appeal to return to that sense of national and spiritual unity. "You are standing here today all of you . . ." In essence, he tells them that they will only enter, conquer, and build the Land if they keep in mind that they need to stand together as one going forward into the future. That message remains as vital for Jews today as it was when our ancestors stared out towards their Promised Land and hopeful future.

1. Here, I offer a literal translation of Exodus 32:8 to illustrate the point of the midrash.

Rabbi David J. Meyer, Th.M., D.D., is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

9/20/2014
Reference Materials: 

Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546-1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386?1,394;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250