This Week's Torah Portion: The Only Way Jews Will Be Recognized as the Holy People (Part 47)

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Dëvar Torah – Parashath Ki Thavo’ (Deuteronmy XXVI,1-XXIX,8)

“You have caused Ha-Shem to be said today to be your G-d, and to go in His ways and to keep His laws and commandments and judgments, and to listen to His voice. And Ha-Shem has caused you today to be His ‘am sëgulla as He spoke to you, and to keep all His commandments (XVI,17-18).”

The meaning of the phrase ‘am sëgulla was discussed extenively in parashath Rë’é; see here.

The verb he’emir which introduces each of the above verses is translated “cause to be said” (cf. Rashbam and Even ‘Ezra ad loc., and Rabbi Sh. Z, Netter’s supercommentary on the Even ‘Ezra, oth tav). The Talmud, in two places (Bërachoth 6a and Gittin 57b), notes that this language is typical of contracts (the second of the two sources specifies the terms of the contract to be that Israel will not exchange Ha-Shem for any other god, and that Ha-Shem will not exchange Israel for any other people).

What, then, is the nature of this contract being entered into on the plains of Mo’av, on the eve of the invasion, and how is it related to the contract which was entered into at Mt. Sinai?

Absolutely essential to an understanding of human history is the fact that it consists of a series of bërithoth (“contracts” or “covenants”) between Man and his Creator. The first of these is recorded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56-57, deduced from Genesis II,16) in which, we are told, the First Man undertook to observe six commandments (mitzvoth): to refrain from idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual immorality, and expropriation of another’s person or property, as well as to establish courts for the administration of justice, should any of the first five be violated. This original covenant remained in effect until unilaterally terminated by G-d, due to Man’s catastrophic failure to adhere to its terms, through the Mabbul, the cosmic cataclysm so inadequately and inaccurately rendered “Flood” (cf. Genesis VI,11-VIII,14).

G-d then renewed His contract with the surviving remnant of humanity, Noach and his sons (Genesis IX,1-17, Sanhedrin inid.) In this amended version, Noach and his descendants were allowed animals as a food source, with the consequent addition of a seventh mitzva, the prohibition of ‘ever min hechai, eating a portion of a living animal. This covenant, known as the Sheva‘ Mitzvoth livnei Noach (“Seven Commandments to the sons of Noach”), remains available to this day to the nations of the world. However, since none of those nations preserves a clear record of this bërith, and it is recorded only in the Torah, its general applicability has been annulled (cf. Bava Qama 38a) and the Rambam has ruled (Hilchoth Mëlachim IX, 1) that it takes effect only upon such gentiles who accept it upon themselves as their portion of the revelation at Sinai.

And yet, this early covenant with Mankind in general was not the main event. As we have noted repeatedly, the world was created according to the Torah’s blueprint (Bëréshith Rabba I,2). As the prophet proclaims, “Thus said Ha-Shem, If My covenant is not by day and night, I did not set the laws of Heaven and Earth (Jeremiah XXXIII,25),” which the Talmud reinforces: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, made a condition with Creation, and said: If Israel accept My Torah, it becomes good; and if not, I shall return you to chaos! (‘Avoda Zara 3a).”

So we see that Israel was planned from the very beginning, and that both the physical and the moral life of the universe depend upon them. This, indeed, is how Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, in his Nefesh haChayyim, interprets the words of the blessing recited after reading the Torah: vëchayyei ‘olam nata‘ bëthochénu, “and the life of the world He has planted in our midst.”

The first phase of the contractual negotiation which resulted in the creation of Israel was a “Memorandum of Agreement” (M.O.A.) between G-d and Avraham, recorded in Genesis and known as the berith bein habëtharim (“the covenant between the halves”). The terms of the Memorandum promised Avraham descendants who would survive exile to inherit the Holy Land from the seven Canaanite tribes. In a later annex (ibid., XXII,18) G-d revealed something of His plans for these descendants: “And all the nations of the Earth will be blessed through your seed….” The M.O.A was renewed with Avraham’s son Yitzchaq (“Isaac”; ibid., XXVI,3-5) and with his son Ya‘aqov (“Jacob”; ibid. XXVIII,13-16), who passed on the as-yet unfulfilled terms to his sons (ibid., XLIX).

The dramatic fulfillment of these terms began with the Exodus from Egypt (cf. Exodus II,24 for an explicit reference to the original agreement). When Israel approached the foot of Sinai, the process of finalization of the Contract went into full swing.

This process has all the earmarks of a contract negotiation. In Exodus XIX,4, G-d reminds Israel that He has fulfilled the first term, having brought them out of Egypt. Then G-d lays out the terms of the final agreement: “If you] will listen to My voice and keep My bërith” then “you will become a sëgulla to me from all the peoples…and you will be for Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation” (ibid., 5-6), i.e.,­ Israel would become G-d’s exclusive agents on Earth. Israel’s response: “Everything that Ha-Shem has said we shall do” (ibid., 8). So the contract was very dramatically initialed at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

The last clause of the M.O.A still remained to be fulfilled: the Holy Land had not yet been conquered. Now that Israel stood at the very brink of that consummation, the contract would be signed and sealed.

This is where we came in supra. As the passage in Gittin 57a points out, the mutuality, exclusivity, and perpetuity of the contract are affirmed. What is more, the meaning of ‘am sëgulla is made explicit: “…and to place you over all the nations which He has made” (Deuteronomy XXVI,19), which rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno explicates as “to make understood and to instruct, as He said, ‘and you will be for Me a kingdom of kohanim.’”

 This, then, was the bërith which G-d was cutting both “with those who are standing here with us today before Ha-Shem our G-d and with those who are not here with us today” (ibid., XIX,13-14), i.e. with all future generations. The Ha‘améq Davar on vv. 17-18 demonstrates that the affirmation clearly indicates how Israel is to discharge this commission:

First, Israel are “to walk in His ways”; this refers to imitatio De-i, i.e., as G-d is merciful, so Israel are to be merciful, and so forth.

Then, lishmor chuqqav, Israel are to learn and preserve the units of measure and rules essential to correct Torah interpretation; umitzvothav, as well as learn and preserve the entirety of what Moshe received at Sinai; umishpatav, to apply the first to the second in order to be mësaggél, to adapt (the root meaning of sëgulla) to the standards and the requirement of Torah; and finally lishoma‘ bëqolo, to be precise and exact in trying to understand the language of Torah: its choice of words, the structure of its phraseology, etc., in order to ensure that the letter of the law is always in conformance to its spirit. In this way, and only in this way, will Israel be recognized and accepted in the world as the ‘am qadosh, the holy people.