Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
Efrat, Israel - “These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab in addition to the covenant He made with them at Horeb” (Deuteronomy 28:69).
What is the significance of this additional covenant, apparently to be made when the Israelites would enter the land of Israel, crossing over from the plains of Moab to the great mountains of Shekhem, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eyval? And indeed Joshua is later to carry out this covenantal ceremony of the blessings and the curses, the establishment of an altar of unhewn stone, the offering of sacrifices, the engravings on the stone of the altar, precisely as it is here described in our Torah portion, after the Israelites conquer the cities of Jericho and Ai (Deuteronomy 27; Joshua 8:30-35). And it is precisely following this covenantal ceremony that all of the surrounding nations attack Israel: “And it happened that when all of the kings from the other side of the Jordan heard this - from the mountains and the lowlands, from the entire shore-land of the Mediterranean ocean (lit. the Great Sea) to those (dwelling) opposite Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizites the Hivites and the Jebusites - they gathered together in unanimous agreement to make war against Joshua and the Israelites” Joshua 9:1,2).
Why yet another covenant, and why is it apparently so threatening to the other nations of the region?
We have already seen two covenants which G-d made with the Jewish people: the first was with Abraham, “the covenant between the pieces,” where G-d guaranteed Abraham progeny and boundaries, in effect the covenant of the Jewish nation-state (Genesis 15); the second was with the Israelite people at Mount Sinai, where G-d revealed the laws at Sinai, the covenant of the Jewish religion (Exodus 24:1-11). The Hebrew brit (covenant) connotes an eternal agreement, a Divine guarantee which can never be rescinded; Israel is both a nation and a religion which will never disappear from history. What else is needed, what other covenant can there be?
This third covenant seems to be dependent upon our entry into the land of Israel, - after all, our Torah portion begins with the words “It will happen when you enter the land which the Lord your G-d gives you as an inheritance, and you inherit it and dwell in it” (Deuteronomy 26:1) - and it seems somehow bound up with the ceremony of the “first fruits” and the tithing of the Israelites to the Levites, the strangers, the orphans and the widows (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The Talmudic Sages see it as a covenant of mutual responsibility, co-signership, (areivut in Hebrew), a play on the Hebrew Arvot Moav, literally the Plains of Moab, from whence the Israelites entered the Shekhem area, but with the additional ring of areivut (co-signership) so close in sound to Arvot.
The Biblical text goes on to command that on the day that they cross over the Jordan River into Israel proper they must establish a stone altar - remember that the original decalogue was engraved on stone, and the Hebrew for stone, even, seems to be a contraction for av and ben, parent and child, connoting continuity - cover it with lime plaster and engrave upon the stones the content of this covenant. The engraved words are to be “explained well”, be’er heiteiv, interpreted by our Sages to mean that they are to be translated into the seventy spoken languages of humanity! (Deuteronomy 27:1-8).
And the content of those blessings and curses are all universal laws of morality which pertain to every human being, like “Cursed is the individual (ish, not only Israelite) who scorns his/her parents, trespasses on the boundary of his neighbor, deceives a blind person on the road, perverts the judgement of a stranger, orphan and widow, is involved in sexual immorality, strikes his/her neighbor secretly, takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.” There are twelve curses and blessings in all, corresponding to the twelve tribes, and the first forbids making a graven image of worship (as explained by the Meiri, expressing the hedonistic and cruel practises of idolatry) and the last insisting upon the necessity of upholding these universal laws.
In addition to these details, the puzzle of this third covenant is solved completely when we take careful note of the verses which introduce its form and content: “You have chosen this day for the Lord to be your G-d, to walk in His ways and to observe His statutes, commands and laws, and to hearken to His voice; and the Lord has chosen you this day to be for him a treasured nation,...a holy nation to the Lord your G-d as He has spoken” (Deuteronomy 26:16-19).
What wells up from all this is that the third covenant goes one crucial step beyond the covenant of nation-state and the covenant of religion; it is the covenant of our chosenness, our function (symbolized by the tribe of Levi, the tribe of teachers, for we are to be a holy nation and a Kingdom of priest-teachers) to perfect the world, to communicate the message of ethical monotheism, of a G-d of justice and peace, to all the other nations. Unlike the other two covenants, this covenant does not mention the rituals at all - not circumcision, and not the Sabbath. This is the covenant of morality, of doing what is right and good, the essence of our laws and the content of our mission to the nations. If the other two covenants are inner directed, this is outer directed; if the other two covenants are concerned with national borders and give equal weight to the ritual and ethical, this is universal and wholly moralistic. This third covenant can only be expressed from the backdrop of our nation-state of Israel, where we too are forced to deal with the complexities of peace and war, social inequities, economic challenges; after all, a teacher must first successfully master the subject matter him/herself, must know what it means to be among the downtrodden (see the ceremony of the first fruits) and must know how to share resources! Understandably this idea of cultural pluralism based on universal peace, freedom and justice upsets every totalitarian regime which enslaves its people and/or seeks world domination, as it did in the ancient Middle East and as it does today to all Islamic Fundamentalist regimes. And especially in a global village in which the threat of nuclear proliferation looms large, this is truly the covenant of responsibility and co-signership; the future of all humanity; including our own, hangs in the balance of our successful execution of our mission of morality to the nations of the world!