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The Renewal of the Covenant

Rav Alex Israel


Blessings and curses. These are the primary ingredients of our parasha. We read of the blessings pronounced by a farmer who approaches God at the Temple with a speech of thanks and contentment at the close of a year of fruitful crops and a successful harvest (Ch.26). But we also have the Tokhacha - the dreadful description of exile, persecution and suffering which would befall the Jewish people if they betrayed their allegiance to God (Ch.28). This spine-chilling series of horrors is a counterbalance to the blessings. According to the Torah, the keys to our national fortune - blessing or curse - lie in our hands. It is the nation's allegiance to God and His law which will determine whether the future brings blessing and bounty, or calamity and ruin.


In this context, the ceremony at Mount Eval and Mt. Gerizim - the national assembly whereby the people of Israel publicly pronounce the terms of their covenant with God - is of particular interest. This event, replete with blessings and curses, pomp and drama, is worthy of our attention. Let us read it:


"As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah ... you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mt. Eval ... There you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not yield an iron tool over them ... and you shall offer upon it burnt offerings (Olah) to the Lord your God, and offerings of well-being (Shelamim) shall you sacrifice and eat them and rejoice before the Lord your God. And on these stones you shall inscribe every word of this Torah most distinctly. ... the following shall stand on Mt. Gerizim when the blessing to the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Yissachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mt. Eval: Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naphtali. The Levites shall proclaim in a loud voice to the people of Israel ...." (27:1-14)


And what follows is a list of curses which - according to tradition (see Rashi) - had corresponding blessings. And then Ch.28; an outlining of the best that can happen to Israel and the worst possible scenario.


Try to cast in your mind's eye an entire nation setting themselves up in formation upon the two hills of Eval and Gerizim, chanting together the words which spelt their national prosperity or the downfall of their newfound statehood. The scene is incredibly impressive. The assembly at Har Eval, blessings and curses, described here in but a few lines, is clearly a national event of great import. It is not designed simply for entertainment, but it is nonetheless an impressive show, with full choreography, against the backdrop of a breathtaking landscape, with twelve massive stones bearing the words of the Torah. What we are witnessing here is the solemn undertaking of a covenant, a commitment between God and his people, which is to be entered into by the entire nation. It is a ceremony, thick with symbolism and historic significance.




Every carefully planned detail of the ceremony points to this event as a ceremony of Kabbalat Ha-Torah. Israel is commanded to take twelve monuments and write the Torah on them. The commentators debate as to whether they wrote down the entire written Torah. Rashi suggests that they wrote the text in seventy languages, apparently viewing this event as a spectacle open to other cultures and nationalities. Other commentators say that they engraved upon the stones only the headings and principles, maybe the listing of the 613 mitzvot. It seems to me that the details are not the essence here as regards the major thrust of the occasion. The objective of these twelve pillars is to create a national monument that represents Torah, the totality of God's law. Whether the text on the stones be an accurate word for word account or a general listing of the mitzvot, these twelve stones - "corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel" (Ex 24:4) - create a powerful visual symbol. They broadcast a clear message. They proclaim that the twelve tribes of Israel commit themselves to God's law.


The timing here is of additional significance. The stones are to be intitiated, unveiled on "the day that you cross the Jordan." A connection is being made between Torah and our right to live in the Land of Israel. The conquest of the land is at stake here, our entire national fortune. The monument that we put up on that historic day of entry into the land - kenisa la-aretz - tells us that it is by virtue of of the Torah that we enter the land. "Write the words of the Torah as you cross over so that you will indeed enter into the land which God gives you" (27:3).




The parallels between this ceremony of entry into the Land, and the covenant that immediately followed the revelation at Mt. Sinai are striking. Chapter 24 in Shemot describes the events of "the morning after." The day after the revelation at Mt. Sinai when God spoke to the people "face to face" and related the Ten Commandments to them, there was a ceremony of national commitment. This was the famous day of "Na'aseh Ve- nishma" when the nation took upon itself the commitments, restrictions and benefits of Judaism.


'Moses went and repeated all the commands of the Lord and all of the rules; and the people answered with one voice, saying, "All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!" Moses then wrote down all the commands ... Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel ... they offered burnt offerings (Olah) and ... offerings of well-being (Shelamim) .... Moses took half the blood and put it in basins and the other half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 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!" Moses took the blood and threw it in the direction of the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands."' (Exodus 24:3-8)


At Har Sinai just as with Har Eval: 1. the mountain provides the backdrop for the covenant. 2. twelve stones were set up, just as in our parasha 3. the sacrifices of Olah (fully burnt - indicating self- sacrifice and surrender) and Shelamim (well-being, a sacrifice eaten as if to be shared with God indicating celebration and mutual commitment) were offered as part of the procedures. 4. In Shemot, they read aloud the "book of the covenant." In our parasha we have the Torah written not on a scroll but rather on the monuments. 5. The statements of "arur" - the curses - in our parasha, demand a response from the audience. Everyone answers "amen."


"Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Torah and observe them - And the people shall say, Amen." (27:26) At Sinai too the people responded with "Na'aseh ve- nishma" - "All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!"


The central elements of the ceremony are identical. Why? It should not be surprising. Both events are "commitment ceremonies" whereby the nation collectively states its allegiance to God and Torah. At Sinai, it represented the covenant at the beginning of the road, the initial commitment. Now on the verge of the promised land, we are instructed to repeat the Sinaitic covenant. We replay the ceremony as our national history takes a bold stride forward. At the moment in which we become a nation "like all other nations" - we have a land, agriculture, a government, army, judiciary etc. - we proclaim our commitment to the Torah and state that our country will be different in certain ways.


This ceremony then, is a re-run of Sinai. It expresses the same degree of commitment. It is meant to reflect the selfsame values. It should not, then, be sthat the Torah links the two events at the closing line of the chapter:


"These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites ... in addition to the covenant which He had made wit them at Chorev (Sinai)." (27:69)




The very structure of the book of Devarim reinforces this notion of a ceremony of renewed commitment to Torah. If you have paid attention to the weekly Torah reading, you will note that we began talking about this event three weeks ago in Parashat Re'eh - Chapter 11. We should be asking a simple question. Why does the Torah begin to tell us about the Har Eval 'happening' in Chapter 11 and only complete the details here in Chapter 27, fifteen chapters afterwards. What is the purpose of the division of the topic into two? Why give a fragmented instruction?


The answer too, is simple. Chapter 12 opens the long listing of laws that forms the centerpiece of Sefer Devarim' the core of the book:


"These are the statutes and judgements that you shall conscientiously fulfil in the Land..." (12:1)


The listing of laws, the legal section comes to a close at the end of Chapter 26.


The command to perform the Har Eval covanental ceremony flanks the legal, "mitzva" section of Sefer Devarim both before and after. This is a simple literary technique, however we might also see a thematic statement issuing from this deliberate pattern of structuring the text. It is clear that this national ceremony is an act of renewed acceptance of Torah, the result of acceptance being "blessing" and the result of non-adherence being "the curse". These terms are mentioned but briefly in Parashat Re'eh, but here in Ki-Tavo we see the Tokhacha, a fully detailed description of "blessing" and "curse". The placing of the Har Eval ceremony flanking the listing of the legal section of the book reinforces the connection between blessing and curse vis a vis the commitment to the laws of Torah. The literary structure of the book of Devarim belies the central role of the assembly at Har Eval as a tool for expressing the terms of the covenant in the land of Israel.




Our parasha describes the ceremony at Mt. Evan and Gerizim in deliberate detail. What we have suggested is that this ceremony is a renewal of the Sinai covenant, to be replayed upon entry to the land in order to express a new dimension to the covenant. Now we must realize that tenure in the land of Israel, and national prosperity or failure, is dependent on the commitment to the laws of God. These are the basic terms of the promised land. This is the central theme of the book of Devarim.


Shabbat Shalom.




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