The Significance of the Covenant

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

            "These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to make with Bnei Yisrael..." In Parashat Ki Tavo we read the "parashat ha-kelalot," including the respective rewards and punishments promised according to our conduct. On the one hand, the severe punishments with which we are threatened strike fear and terror in our hearts. However, there is another way of serving God - through awe of His grandeur. Today we are witness to the phenomenon of a society which fears no punishment, and in such an environment it sometimes appears as though parashat ha-kelalot, which is actually a covenant between God and the nation of Israel, has lost its significance. Moreover, fear of punishment leads us to Divine service which is performed "in order to receive reward," which is less than ideal. We are faced with the question: What is the significance of the covenant found in this week's parasha?


            There is another aspect to this covenant, which comes to show us and inculcate in our consciousness the fact that every action which we perform causes a reaction, an effect. Nothing is static in this world - there is constant action and activity. There was once a group of Bundists (Yiddish Socialists) which held extreme anti-religious views. In order to demonstrate their protest against religion they decided to hold a "Kol Nidrei party" on Yom Kippur during the time that Kol Nidrei was to be recited, thereby exhibiting the very opposite of the seriousness of the occasion. One would think that if they were so strongly against religion then they would leave it alone and not pay it any attention! Their claim, after all, was that religion was not worthy of any attention. This phenomenon reveals a certain nervousness - the covenant which God made with Israel gave them no rest; they felt compelled to fight against it.


            Once during a certain panel discussion, where the subject of secular Jews protesting against religious coercion was raised, someone commented that just as we once had a "Shabbos goy," now we have a "Shabbos Jew." When a Jew was faced with a certain problem on Shabbat, he called a gentile to help him. But now there are Jews who have a problem with Shabbat (or Judaism) as a whole, and they restrict themselves to a tiny corner of Judaism - they don't go to work on Shabbat, they recite Kiddush, or they go to the synagogue. Others express this in other areas: a Jewish wedding, a bar-mitzva, a brit mila. Years ago in Israel, when women gave birth they used to spend ten days in hospital following the delivery, and there was an agreement between the National Religious Party and the Histadrut such that every boy born would be circumcised. At a certain point, when the hospital stay was shortened, the NRP became afraid that some boys would not be circumcised, but the opposite proved true: every family makes sure that its boys are circumcised, and if they don't, they know that there will be problems later on. There have been periods in Israeli politics when the majority of the government has consisted of secular Jews. Why did they never do away with "religious coercion"? Because for Jews who are not observant it is convenient, in a certain sense, that religious coercion exists - so that the tiny corner of Judaism remains; so that they don't have to do anything willingly - they are forced to do certain things. In this way their conscience finds rest. They don't have to admit that they want to preserve some measure of Judaism in their lives and that they would have kept certain observances anyway; they can tell themselves that they are being coerced.


            This is the covenant that God made with Israel - that we should constantly feel this agitation which causes us discomfort. No matter whether we observe the Torah or fight against it, we shall never be able to discard it apathetically and leave it forgotten...


(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5745.

Translated by Kaeren Fish.)