Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29, 9 – 30, 20) – the inseparable nature of the Biblical covenants of Abraham and Moses

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In the Torah reading of Nitzavim, there is a remarkable passage in which Moses tells the Israelites that God says that the covenant between God and the Israelites is not only with those Israelites with whom Moses is speaking but even with those not present – “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” (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14). The obvious question here is how a covenant, which is an agreement, can be made with, and obligate, those not present. Before attempting to answer this question, I want to give background about Judaism as a religion and also clarify the nature of the covenant being spoken of in the Torah reading of Nitzavim.

 

Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in a theological sense of a faith commitment – not only faith in God but faith in Jesus as the messiah. What defines one as a Christian, and unites Christians, is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers – and, one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents and even if believing in God. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular Christian who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah.

 

By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the theological sense of a faith commitment but in a pragmatic sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people. What defines one as a Jew is a legal standard of being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and, not faith in God nor any other faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice). Among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular – and, what unites Jews is not a faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice) but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or heritage.

 

There are two covenants in the Hebrew Bible between God and the Jewish people, which reflect the two fundamental elements of traditional Judaism – peoplehood and religion. The element of peoplehood is an integral element of the Jewish religion and based upon the Biblical covenant of Abraham who is considered the spiritual father of the Jewish people – and, the Jewish people is a people in a nationalistic sense, and not a racial or ethnic sense (as from the beginning of Jewish history there have been Jews of differing racial and ethnic background, and anyone regardless of racial or ethnic background can convert and become a member of the Jewish people). The covenant of Abraham also includes the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as a nation cannot generally exist without a national homeland (the survival of the Jewish people for over two thousand years without our national homeland is an exception to the laws of history). The sign of the covenant of Abraham is circumcision – “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your seed after you…every male child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17, 7-11).

 

The element of Judaism as a religion is based upon the Biblical covenant of Moses, as the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a constitution of the Jewish people is regarded in the Jewish tradition as the Divinely revealed word of God given to the Jewish people through Moses on Mount Sinai. To be accurate, the Five Books of Moses do not describe the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as being given on Mount Sinai. Rather, according to the Torah, the tablets containing the so called ten commandments (the Torah and the Talmudic rabbis use the term ten statements) and other mitzvot (commandments) were given on Mount Sinai. Yet, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is it written explicitly that the entire Torah as a written document came from Sinai. However, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded as given on Sinai; and is the legal constitution (as a basis of Jewish law), and a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of the Jewish people. The main sign of the covenant of Moses is the Sabbath – “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the children of Israel saying, you shall surely keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31, 12-13).

 

In the Torah reading of Nitzavim, the covenant that is being spoken about (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14) in the plain meaning of Scripture is the covenant of Moses and Sinai, as reflected in the previous passage just prior to the Torah reading of Nitzavim – “These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which He made with them in Horev (Mount Sinai)” (Deuteronomy 28, 69). Moses had already previously told the Israelites that the covenant of Sinai was with not only those who had stood at Sinai, and had since died out, but with those with whom Moses is speaking in the plains of Moab prior to entering the land of Israel – “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horev; the Lord made this covenant not (only) with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day” (Deuteronomy 5, 2-3). The intent here is that the covenant of Moses and Sinai is being renewed with the new generation of Israelites in the plains of Moab prior to the Israelites entering the land of Israel, as the previous generation that had stood at Sinai had died out – and, it is the renewal of the covenant of Moses and Sinai that is being spoken of in the Torah reading of Nitzavim and in the Book of Deuteronomy.

 

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (who lived in the 20th century) wrote an essay in Hebrew “Kol Dodi Dofek” in which he distinguishes between the two Biblical covenants of Abraham and Moses. Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to the covenant of Abraham and Jewish peoplehood as the covenant of Egypt (as the exodus from Egypt represents the birth of the Jewish people), and he suggests that the covenant of Abraham is one of fate. Aside from converts who choose to join the Jewish people, we become members of the Jewish people not by choice but by fate in being born of a Jewish mother and being born into the Jewish people. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the covenant of Moses and Sinai is one of destiny. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the covenant of Sinai refers to the way of life of the Jewish people that was accepted by the Israelites at Sinai as a matter of consent – and, Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to this as a covenant of destiny in the sense that this covenant is the result of a conscious and purposeful decision of the Jewish people to live a life of Torah as the essence of Judaism (and, this is our destiny that we have chosen as a people).

 

If, though, the covenant of Moses and Sinai is indeed one of destiny in being the result of consent and a conscious decision of the Jewish people to live a life of Torah, then how can this covenant be binding upon future generations? Yet, strikingly, it is written in the Torah reading of Nitzavim that not only is the covenant of Moses and Sinai binding upon the Israelites who stood at Sinai, as well as those in the plains of Moab who accepted the covenant of Moses as a matter of free choice (as did the Israelites at Sinai), but it is binding also on future generations who did not stand at Sinai and were not present at the renewal of the covenant in the plains of Moab – “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” (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14)?

 

I want to suggest that the two Biblical covenants of Abraham and Moses are actually inseparable and intimately intertwined. If I were to choose one verse that captures in the Biblical conception the essence of Torah (Judaism), the essence of the covenant of Moses, it would be the verse – “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18). In the verse immediately prior to this moral demand of a life of righteousness and goodness it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17) – indicating that the observance of law and commandments is an expression of the righteousness and goodness that God demands morally and spiritually as the essence of Torah (Judaism). The observance of law and commandments (mitzvot) then is in the context of, and an expression of, the fulfillment of the moral will of God – “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18).

 

The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is not faith or law or ritual practice but morality – a moral life of righteous and goodness. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel (ישראל), in Hebrew contains the word God (אל) as well as the word righteous (ישר), the very same word righteous as in the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”) – and, if the name Israel is divided in the middle, it means righteous of God (ישר אל). The people Israel then are to be a people devoted to righteousness and right living as the essence of Torah (Judaism). Also, Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out as a person who “will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). Strikingly, the very essence of the covenant of Moses is a moral life of righteousness and goodness – and, such a moral life of righteousness and goodness is an inherent part of the covenant of Abraham as reflected in the name of the Jewish people, Israel, and as exemplified by Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people.

 

Thus, the essence of the covenant of Abraham, the essence of belonging to the Jewish people, from a spiritual point of view, is to live a moral life of righteousness and goodness in the spirit of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people – just as this is the essence of the covenant of Moses. It is this moral obligation to live a life of righteousness and goodness as the essence of Torah (Judaism) that is incumbent, in my view, not only upon the Israelites who stood at Sinai and accepted the covenant of Moses upon them and not only upon the Israelites who in the plains of Moab renewed the covenant of Moses – it is likewise incumbent upon all Jews in every generation by virtue of being a member of the Jewish people, the people Israel, and a spiritual descendent of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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