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16.09.2019 15:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  devarim  parasha  ki tavo  

The Covenant on the Plains of Moab

At the end of this week’s reading, the Torah summarizes Moses’ orations, emphasizing that another covenant was made between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the people of Israel:  “These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb” (Deut. 28:69).

This raises a fundamental question:  why was there need for another covenant?  After all, when the covenant was made at Mount Sinai the people of Israel undertook to obey the Torah and its commandments, as we read in Exodus:

“Then he [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people.  And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’  Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands’” (Ex. 24:7-8).

An answer to this question is given in Tractate Shabbat (88a).  Regarding the verse, “and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 19:17), Rabbi Abdimi said, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, ‘tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’”  In other words, according to the gemara, the covenant at Mount Sinai was made under duress, and any agreement made under duress is not legally and morally binding.

Indeed, that is what the gemara concludes:  “This furnishes a strong protest [moda`a rabba] against the Torah.”  Moda`a rabba signifies legal grounds for cancelling a contractual agreement; “If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to take them to court on charges of not upholding their undertakings, they could answer:  we agreed under duress” (Rashi, loc. cit.s.v., “moda`a rabbah”).

The coercive element in the covenant at Mount Sinai can be interpreted in various ways.  Rabbenu Tam ascribes the coercion to Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai:  “For it was by the Word [of G-d], lo, under duress” (loc. cit.Tosefots.v., “moda`a rabba le-oraita).  In other words, direct Revelation of the Lord created a situation in which there was no free choice, for who can refuse the direct word of G-d?

The element of coercion can also be explained in terms of the emotional state of the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  They were still in a state of shock and utter confusion; having left Egypt only seven weeks earlier, they were still agitated by the dramatic events of fleeing the country, being chased by the Egyptians, the Red Sea being split, and encountering tremendous hardships in the wilderness.  In such an emotional state any consent or undertaking could have no “resolve,” a necessary condition for making consent binding.[1] For this reason they accepted an undertaking whose terms and implications they barely knew.

If the covenant at Mount Sinai was faulty and lacking, then another covenant was needed that would not have the deficiencies of the previous covenant.  Indeed, the covenant on the Plains of Moab was made at the end of the trek through the wilderness, forty years after the exodus from Egypt.  During these forty years the people learned the entire Torah and knew exactly what obligations they were taking upon themselves.  During these forty years they learned the significance of obeying the commandments, both as individuals and as a nation.

The covenant on the Plains of Moab was thus concluded with full awareness and clarity of mind.  This covenant is the one that binds later generations, and not the covenant at Mount Sinai.  Only here does Scripture say, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our G-d and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13-14).  The midrash (Tanhuma 3, and Rashi, loc. cit.) learns from this:  “[The covenant was made] also with future generations.”

Regarding the covenant on the Plains of Moab one can ask where the people’s consent appears.  At Sinai, the Israelites declared their consent three times:  “All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’” (Ex. 19:8); “and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All that things that the Lord has commanded we will do!’” (Ex. 24:3), and “Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people.  And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’” (Ex. 24:7).

In the covenant on the Plains of Moab, which as we said was binding on the people for future generations as well, only Moses spoke and the people remained silent.  What sort of covenant is this if the people do not express their explicit consent to be party to it?

The people’s response turns out to have been given in actions, not in words.  Immediately after the covenant on the Plains of Moab they crossed the Jordan River to the Plains of Jericho, where a great circumcision ceremony took place for all the Israelites born in the wilderness.  “This is the reason why Joshua had the circumcision performed…none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised…and it was these that Joshua circumcised, for they were uncircumcised” (Josh. 5:4-7).  The people’s consent to the covenant found expression in their agreeing to observe the commandment of circumcision, just as Abraham entered a covenant with G-d by circumcising himself and his son:

God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant.  Such shall be the covenantbetween Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep:  every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and You…Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.”  (Gen. 17:9-13)

Indeed, immediately after the covenant of circumcision at Jericho, the Holy One, blessed be He, told Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (Josh. 5:9).[2] The process of the exodus from Egypt and forging the bond between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the people of Israel, did not reach its conclusion at Sinai, rather in the covenant on the Plains of Moab, which begins with Moses, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and concludes with Joshua son of Nun, on the western side of the Jordan River.

The covenant on the Plains of Moab is what created mutual accountability within the Jewish people.  Regarding the verse, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our G-d; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching” (Deut. 29:28), Rashi says, based on the gemara (Sanhedrin 43b):  “Even for overt acts [transgressions committed openly] He did not punish the people collectively until after they crossed the Jordan River…and became accountable one for another.”

This mutual accountability, which requires that we care and be responsible for every Jew, is what turns us from a collection of individuals into a well-formed national entity.  The Israelites became a people in the full sense of the word only after the covenant on the Plains of Moab:  “to enter into the covenant of the Lord your G-d, which the Lord your G-d is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your G-d, as He promised you” (Deut. 29:11-12).  We became a people neither with the exodus from Egypt, nor at Mount Sinai, but only upon entering the land that we were to settle.

Actually, one could also argue “moda`a rabba le-oraita” regarding the covenant on the Plains of Moab.  According to Rabbenu Tam, the covenant at Mount Sinai was lacking because there was no free choice in the face of Divine Revelation.  But revelation did not come to an end at Mount Sinai.  Throughout their wanderings in the wilderness the people witnessed overt miracles—the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud that went before the people and protected them; the manna, the quail, and Miriam’s well, which fed the people in an unnatural way.  Although a distinction should be drawn between direct Revelation at Mount Sinai and the miracles in the wilderness, as Maimonides notes (Sefer ha-MadaHilkhot Yesodei Torah, ch. 8, halakhah 1 and 2), does not latter state of ongoing miracles in which the Israelites lived for decades essentially deprive a person of free choice?

This is apparently why Joshua did not make do with the covenants of Moses, and towards the end of his life arranged a ceremony renewing the covenant in Shechem:  “Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem.  He summoned Israel’s elders and commanders, magistrates and officers; and they presented themselves before G-d” (Josh. 24:1).[3] On this occasion he gave them anew the choice whether to stand by the Lord and His Teaching or to abandon the Lord and go in the ways of other peoples:  “Now, therefore, revere the Lord and serve Him with undivided loyalty…Or, if you are loath to serve the Lord, choose this day which ones you are going to serve” (Josh. 24:14-15).  As in the covenant at Mount Sinai, here too the people rose to the challenge placed before them by their leader and undertook to worship the Lord:

But the people replied to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord.”  Thereupon Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses...”  And the people declared to Joshua, “We will serve none but the Lord our G-d and will obey none but Him.”  (Josh. 24:21-25)

The advantages of the covenant at Shechem are clearly evident.  By the end of Joshua’s life the people had experienced decades of fighting for conquest of the land, most of the battles being in difficult conditions and without supernatural intervention.[4] Here the people not only knew the Torah but also were familiar with the combination of the Promised Land and the Torah, not only with overt Divine Providence, but also and primarily with covert Providence, operating through nature and history.  Here the people were no longer “a people that dwells apart,” rather a people that rubs up against the peoples of Canaan and is influenced by their culture.

This is where the true test came, and the Israelites stood it with flying colors, evincing the highest level of faithfulness to the Lord and adherence to the Torah:  “We will serve none but the Lord our G-d, and we will obey none but Him” (Josh. 24:24).  Henceforth the relationship between God and His people does not end with Revelation at Mount Sinai, rather it begins there, continues with the covenant on the Plains of Moab and the Plains of Jericho, concludes with the covenant of Joshua at Shechem.  This city was rightfully dubbed “the city of the Covenant,” for there alone was the covenant between the people and their G-d concluded.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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