The Covenant of the Plains of Moav

  • Harav Baruch Gigi








In memory of our beloved father and grandfather
Mr. Berel Weiner (Dov Ber ben Aharon z"l).  
May the learning of these shiurim provide an aliya for his neshama.

Steven Weiner, Lisa Wise, Michael & Joshua



The Covenant of the Plains of Moav


Adapted by Immanuel Meier

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Purpose of the Covenant


"You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your leaders, [heads of] your tribes, your elders, and your officers, [with] all the men of Israel; your young, your wives, and the stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water – that you might enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, and into His oath, which the Lord your God forges with you this day." (Devarim 29:9-11)

In our parasha we read about a covenant forged between God and the nation of Israel. This covenant includes all strata of the people: the leaders, heads of tribes, elders and officers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water.


The all-inclusive nature of this covenant expresses itself not only in the presence of the entire people, but also in its inclusion of future generations that are not physically present at this ceremony: "And those who are not here with us this day" (ibid. 14). This future generation is mentioned in the content of the covenant, too: "And that later generation – the children who will rise up after you – will say…" (ibid. 21).


Rashi, commenting on verse 12, explains the reason for the covenant that is forged at this point, on the plains of Moav:


"A midrash aggada teaches: Why is the parasha 'You are standing this day…' (the beginning of parashat Nitzavim) juxtaposed to the curses (at the end of parashat Ki Tavo)? Because [the nation of] Israel had just heard a hundred curses less two, and these were in addition to the 49 [curses] in Sefer Vayikra. They were shaken [literally, "their faces turned green"] and they said, 'Who can live with this?!' [So] Moshe began to calm them: 'You are standing here this day…' – You have angered God on many occasions, but He has not annihilated you, and behold, you continue to exist before Him."


Rashi describes a feeling of despair – a reasonable response on the part of Bnei Yisrael following the unit of the blessings and the curses – and describes the covenant of parashat Nitzavim as addressing this feeling and offering encouragement. However, a review of the first part of this covenant does not convey hope; rather, it threatens even more terrible punishment.


Ramban (v.9) offers a different reason for the covenant:


"Perhaps [God] forged another covenant with them in the same manner as the first one which He forged with them at Mount Sinai, where a burnt offering was sacrificed for them, with half of the blood taken for sprinkling upon the altar and the other half sprinkled upon the nation, but there was no need to make mention of this."


Ramban suggests that this covenant is an additional one, identical in content to the covenant at Sinai. If so, we must ask, what is the purpose of this covenant? Was the covenant at Sinai not sufficient?


In order to answer this question, we must take another look at the context of the covenant. In contrast to the covenant of Sinai, which was given to Am Yisrael in the wilderness, this covenant is forged on the plains of Moav, immediately prior to their entry into the land.


The covenant of Sinai was suited to the generation of the wilderness. This was a generation that ate manna every day; a generation that experienced miracles on a regular basis; a generation whose camp did not exceed an area of twelve square 'mil,' with the Mishkan at its center; a generation led by Moshe Rabbeinu.


This covenant of the plains of Moav is given to the generation that is about to enter the land. This generation’s daily life will not be a series of revealed miracles; the nation will be spread throughout Eretz Yisrael and will eat not manna but the produce of the land. While their own food, too, will have certain special aspects of holiness, this will not be openly manifest, as it was in the case of the manna. This is a generation led by Yehoshua, not Moshe. This change, this generation gap, requires a renewed covenant.


Another question arises: why is it that on this auspicious public occasion, Moshe sees fit to speak of such terrible punishment as the overturning of Sedom and Amora? Here we might suggest an analogy to a spectator at a court trial between two business partners. He asks them: Why did you not sign a contract setting forth guidelines and procedures to be followed in the event of disagreement? The two parties would answer him: When we started our partnership, we didn't believe we would ever argue, so we saw no reason to draw up a contract.


The function of a contract, of a covenant, is precisely to serve in situations such as this. It regulates what happens if one of the parties fails to fulfill his part of the agreement, setting forth the recourse – in other words, what the other partner will do in order to enforce the terms of the agreement. This is the purpose of the covenant of parashat Nitzavim, with the harsh punishments that it details.


The Curses and Repentance


Following the detailed description of the Divine punishment, the Torah describes a process of teshuva – repentance and return:


"And it shall be, when all these things befall you – the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you – then you will recall to your heart among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you…" (Devarim 30:1)


The description of the motivation behind this move to repentance includes two elements: the blessing and the curse. The reader might well ask, why would it be specifically the curse that would cause a sinner to "recall to his heart"?


A loving father punishes his son when he misbehaves. In so doing, the father expresses his concern and sensitivity towards his son's actions. A father who does not respond to his child's misbehavior expresses apathy and distance. From this perspective, the curse is preferable to Divine silence and apathy, and it leads one to repentance.


Indeed, the possibility of God abandoning Am Yisrael appears later on, in parashat Vayelekh:


"Then My anger will burn against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, Is it not because our God is not in our midst that all of these evils have befallen us?" (Devarim 31:17)


This verse is not describing a punishment that God brings upon Israel, but rather His abandonment. Once God abandons the nation, many evils and troubles befall them – not as a series of punishments with which He strikes them, but rather as the consequences of His absence. This situation is far worse and harder to bear than the punishment of parashat Nitzavim, where God still responds to our actions and we are still "standing" before Him.


The situation of 'standing' before God arouses associations of the month of Elul. We are now almost at the end of the month, and as always we find ourselves inadequately prepared. We must do all that we can in order to improve the quality of our prayers at this time, and make an effort to truly be standing before God.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5771 [2011].)