The First Covenant and the Second Covenant

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by David Strauss
Three Covenants
Parashat Nitzavim opens with the covenant in the plains of Moav:
You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, and into His oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that He may establish you this day to Himself for a people, and that He may be to you a God, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day. (Devarim 29:9-14)
The gemara in Chagiga cites the view of R. Akiva, who maintains that three covenants were made between God and the people of Israel:
R. Akiva said: The general directions and the details were given at Sinai and repeated in the Tent of Meeting and enjoined a third time in the plains of Moav. (Chagiga 6a)
Why was there a need for three covenants? The gemara in Shabbat tells of the extreme severity of the sin of the golden calf:
Ulla said: Shameless is the bride that plays the harlot within her bridal canopy! R. Mari the son of Shemuel's daughter said: What verse [refers to this]? "While the king sat at his table, [my spikenard gave up its fragrance]" (Shir Ha-Shirim 1:12). (Shabbat 88b)
If so, it is clear why an additional covenant was needed. The people of Israel breached the first covenant, and therefore God entered into a new covenant with them in the Tent of Meeting following the building of the Mishkan. But why was a third covenant necessary in the plains of Moav?
The simple understanding is that the need for a third covenant stemmed from Israel's imminent entry into the Promised Land. We wish to offer a more fundamental reason, in light of the previous parasha. Rashi at the beginning of the parasha writes:
"Since He must be to you a God" – Because He has promised it to you and has sworn to your fathers not to exchange their descendants for another nation. For this reason He binds you by these oaths not to provoke Him to anger since He, on His part, cannot dissociate Himself from you. Thus far I have given an exposition according to the literal sense of the chapter. An aggadic explanation, however, is: Why is the section beginning with the words, "You are standing this day," put in juxtaposition to the curses [in the previous chapter]? Because when Israel heard these ninety-eight curses besides the forty-nine that are contained in Torat Kohanim, their faces turned pale, and they exclaimed: Who can possibly stand against these? Therefore Moshe began to calm them: See, you are standing to day before the Lord – many times you have provoked God to anger and yet He has not made an end to you, but you still continue in His presence. (Rashi, Devarim 29:12)
The people of Israel ask: How is possible to comply with God's demands in light of their difficult experience and the threatening curses? It should be noted that the curses in Parsahat Bechukotai end on an optimistic note, but the curses in Parashat Ki-Tavo describe almost the complete annihilation of the people of Israel:
And the Lord shall bring you back into Egypt in ships, by the way whereof I said to you: You shall see it no more again; and there you shall sell yourselves to your enemies for bondmen and for bondwomen, and no man shall buy you. (Devarim 28:68)
In light of this conclusion, how can the people of Israel obligate themselves to a new connection to God, after such a harsh situation?
The Challenges of the Covenant
This question may be raised with respect to any covenant – between nations and states, between spouses, or even between friends. How can a person obligate himself in the present about something that will take place in the future, when it is not at all certain that the interests of the parties will remain the same, or even their fundamental natures? States can suddenly change directions, a spouse can unexpectedly lose his or her love and desire for the other partner, and friends can quickly become repulsive to each other. How can a man and wife who married at a young age, in their twenties, commit themselves to love each other in their fifties and sixties?
God answers this question in the covenant entered into at the plains of Moav:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall bethink yourself among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you, and shall return to the Lord your God and hearken to His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; that then the Lord your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Devarim 30:1-3)
This covenant includes the possibility that there will be a crisis. So too it is stated in Parashat Vayelekh:
And the Lord said to Moshe: Behold, you are about to sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in 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 shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods. Now therefore write you this song for you, and teach you it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten their fill, and waxed fat; and turned to other gods, and served them, and despised Me, and broken My covenant; then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their imagination how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (Devarim 31:16-21)
God is aware of the fact that there will be crises, but He also knows that we will emerge from them. This is true also about crises in marriage and between friends; there are minor quarrels and disagreements here and there, but there are also more fundamental crises, significant gaps that appear all of a sudden, difference that cannot be overlooked – but even those can be overcome together and there is no need to sever the relationship.
The Power of a True Covenant
            After a deep and fundamental crisis, the spouses, friends, parents and children, or God and the people of Israel can sit down and talk to each other. Each side can lay out on the table his thoughts and feelings, relate how he experienced the crisis, and how he emerged from it. After such a crisis, the air seems clearer. There is a sense that the sun is shining more brightly.
            In Shir Ha-Shirim we find similar descriptions of the lover and his beloved in chapters 4 and 6. How are we to understand the duplication? Between the two accounts we encounter a crisis:
I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved. I sleep, but my heart wakes; Hark! my beloved knocks: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the bar. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer. (Shir Ha-Shirim 5:1-6) 
The Ramban explains the repetition of the description of the Mishkan in Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei as follows: We might have thought that the pardon for the sin of the golden calf was incomplete and that residual negative feelings still remained. The detailed repetition informs us that the relations returned to what they once were. The people of Israel and God were once again connected, united, and involved one in the other:
And he told all of them the matter of the Mishkan about which he had been commanded from the beginning before the breaking of the tablets. For when the Holy One, blessed be He, reconciled with them and gave him the second set of tablets and made a new covenant with him that God would walk among them, they returned to their previous state and to the love of their espousals, and it was clear that the Shekhina would rest among them as He had commanded him at the beginning, as it is stated: "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may rest among them." Therefore Moshe commanded them now all that he had been commanded from the beginning. (Ramban, Shemot 35:1)
After a crisis, things improve. The gemara in Berakhot relates:
R. Abahu said: In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand, as it says: "Peace, peace to him that was far and to him that is near" (Yeshayahu 57:19) — to him that was far first, and then to him that is near. (Berakhot 34b)
A wholly righteous man is all the time on the same field, whereas a penitent had become distant, but now is once again near. A penitent sinner is built for a relationship that undergoes crises, and such a relationship is stronger and more meaningful than one without crises.
This is the reason that a third covenant was needed. A covenant that is entered into after a crisis can be an eternal covenant, since the parties know that they are not dealing with momentary love, but rather with eternal love. A person accepts upon himself to strengthen himself in his religious life after Rosh Hashana, and this strengthening remains with him during the Yomim Nora'im and for a short time afterwards, but when there is a fall, we must be prepared for it. We must know that the covenant that we entered into anew, that the connection that was built, can withstand a crisis – even a serious crisis. Crises strengthen the covenant and allow it to exist and persist even in the future.
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim 5774 [2014].)