PROMISES, PROMISES

 

The idea of a brit, or covenant, is one that occurs several times throughout the Torah, and helps to define the Biblical history of the Jewish people. Loosely explained, a brit is an agreement between two parties, such as Hashem and the Jews, which bind the two to each other in a permanent relationship. However, as we shall see, the specifics of such agreements change throughout the course of the Torah, and thus throughout Jewish history. We will focus this week on the development of the brit in the Torah, and how its changes reflect both the differing nature of each book in the Torah, as well as the changing nature of the relationship between Hashem and the Jews as they mature as a nation.

The first brit is made with Avraham. In the "brit bein ha-betarim" (covenant between the parts; Bereishit 15), Hashem promises Avraham that his children will be slaves for four hundred years, but will ultimately be redeemed with great wealth and will subsequently take over the land of Israel. At a later point in time, Hashem commands Avraham to circumcise himself and the males of his household as a sign of the eternal covenant between them (Bereishit 17). It should be noted that this is not the same brit as the covenant between the parts. Again, Avraham is promised an inheritance for his children, but this time it is a larger tract of land (extending from the Nile River to the Euphrates).

Regardless of the differences between the two covenants made between Hashem and Avraham, it is still possible to view the two of them together. In neither case is Avraham made responsible to do anything. He had already accepted to yoke of God, and seemingly as a reward for his fidelity he is promised that his children will become a great nation and inherit the Land of Israel. All that Avraham has to do is undergo circumcision as a sign of this covenant. Jewish history thus begins as a one-way street. The Jewish people are chosen as being the descendants of Avraham, and no other commitment or action is needed on their part, and there are no stated consequences for disobeying Hashem.

The second level of the brit occurs after the Jews leave Egypt, when they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. The giving of the Torah serves as a codification of the brit between God and the children of Avraham. However, the brit now moves from being comparable to a parent-child relationship to being similar to that between a husband and a wife. Chazal make many statements noting how Hashem came out to greet the Jews at Mount Sinai the way a husband greets his wife and how the Torah serves as the marriage contract between Hashem and the Jews. As such, the Jews remained relatively passive, being required only to accept the Torah given to them, which they did by proclaiming "na'aseh v'nishma." As the Jews have now become a nation, there was a need for a more concrete form of the covenant. However, there is as yet no mention of consequences for disobedience; the merit of Avraham and the spirit of the covenant made with him seemingly was still fitting several generations after his death. The covenant with the individual thus successfully passed on to the communal stage.

All of this changed with the sin of the Golden Calf. Hashem's initial reaction was to wipe out the nation and start fresh with Moshe. In our context we can see that this is more than a simple threat. Jewish history until this point had been guided by the covenant with Avraham, an individual who recognized Hashem on his own, against his upbringing and his entire society. To wipe out his descendants would mean ending that covenant and starting Jewish history anew. Thus, Moshe appeals to Hashem on the basis of the merit of the forefathers, imploring Him not to completely raze the foundations of the nation. Hashem relents, but changes the details of the relationship between Himself and His people. For the first time, there has been punishment (or threat of punishment) on a national level, and thus Hashem has to reveal to Moshe his thirteen attributes of mercy. These serve as a "magic formula" to be invoked by the Jews when they have gone astray. It is no longer sufficient for the Jews to survive based solely on the merits of their ancestors. Now, they require the mercies of Hashem as well.

The next brit comes in this week's parasha, Bechukotai. Now, however, things have changed drastically. For the first time, the covenant is arranged as an "if you do... if you fail to do..." deal. Now, all of God's goodness is promised to the Jews conditional on their keeping all of the commandments. Even more important, failure to keep the commandments will result in a slew of punishments, ranging from disease to exile.

The big question is: what happened to change the brit from one in which the Jews were relatively passive to one in which they are required to be active and risk horrible punishment if they fail in this role? Perhaps the answer can be found by looking at one key word in this covenant and relating it to Sefer Vayikra as a whole. This brit is characterized by the word "keri," meaning happenstance. The failure of the Jewish people here is framed as being a failure to make Hashem a constant part of their lives, and treating Him as an occasional feature of their world outlook. Thus, Hashem threatens that if the Jews treat Him in such an offhanded matter, He will respond in kind and only occasionally try to save His people from all of the tragedies that will befall them.

This could all be related to the theme of the entire Sefer Vayikra, namely the concept of kedusha, or holiness. Kedusha is not exclusively some metaphysical concept that requires sacrifices and incantations. Rather, the entire theme of the second half of the book focuses on kedusha in daily life how honoring one's parents, keeping various agricultural laws, maintaining sexual morality, and keeping Shabbat and other holidays transform the mundane aspects of human existence into the service of God. The key to kedusha is taking every single aspect of one's life and dedicating it to God. Thus, Hashem concludes this treatise on kedusha by saying that if the Jews fail to make kedusha the central motivating feature of their lives, if they make Hashem a mere afterthought to their actions, Hashem will respond by being exactly that.

This can also reflect back on Sefer Vayikra as a whole. Vayikra is often seen as a "break in the action" the narrative of Shemot pauses until Bamidbar and all of the laws of sacrifices and holiness are inserted into the Torah in the wake of the construction of the mishkan. However, perhaps Vayikra represents an elevation of the covenant as laid out in Sefer Shemot. Sefer Shemot describes the birth of the Jewish nation, and thus the covenant found in that book is one appropriate to a people going through the initial stages of nationhood. While they are given the Torah, the terms on which it is given are similar to those that existed between Hashem and Avraham. Sefer Vayikra elevates the people to the next level. They are now to be not just "people of the covenant," but also "a holy people." This level of relationship to Hashem demands much more from the Jews, and thus a new version of the covenant is necessary. Nevertheless, they are still connected to their forefathers, and this covenant concludes by Hashem stating that when all else seems to be lost, He will remember the merit of the fathers as the final motivation for the salvation of the Jewish people.

The final covenant is the one found near the end of the Torah, in parashat Ki-Tavo. In some ways, it is very similar to that found in Bechukotai. Once again, the Jews are promised great rewards if they follow the commandments, but great punishments if they violate them. However, other than the difference in magnitude (the list of curses in Ki-Tavo is much longer), there are two significant and related differences as well between the two covenants. One is that the covenant in Ki-Tavo lacks the theme of "keri." It seems that here the Jews are threatened with punishment for their overall disobedience to the laws. Second, there is no "cushion" at the end of the list of curses in Sefer Devarim as there is in Vayikra. Again, we have to ask what has happened. What stage are the Jews at that their covenant not only requires their participation, and not only threatens them with terrible punishment if they fail in their role of servants of Hashem, but also seemingly does not provide them with any reason to hope for salvation?

One possible explanation has been quoted by Rabbi Yissachar Frand. He notes that if one examines the curses in Devarim, he will see that it is Hashem Himself that is exacting punishment on the Jews. Whereas in Vayikra Hashem pulls back, as an answer to the Jews' marginalization of His omnipotence and omnipresence, here Hashem stays involved in Jewish history, but as the one meting out the punishment. Rabbi Frand notes that this is, in and of itself, a comfort, and I would like to suggest further that this also hearkens back to the original nature of the covenant. Hashem is often compared to a father of the Jewish people. As such, even when He punishes his children, He does it solely for their own good, whether or not they realize that such is the case. So long as Hashem allows others to punish the Jews, there is a need for Him to remind the Jewish people of His presence. However, when He picks up the task Himself, there is no need to remind the Jews that He will save them, because He is always right there, waiting to stop the punishment and respond with love, the way that a father can hit his child and then hug to let him know that he still loves him.

This is the theme contained in Sefer Devarim, and the message for post-Torah Judaism (and for us today). The final expression of the covenant is one for a people about to leave home, to leave the sheltered confines of the desert, and about to enter a real world filled with the harsh realities of not only physical enemies, but, even more insidious, spiritual enemies who look not to kill the Jews, but rather to acculturate and assimilate them. Hashem realizes that the Jews will often stumble and will thus be deserving of the retribution that he describes in parashat Ki-Tavo. However, the final word on the covenant is that "hester panim," the hiding of the face of Hashem, may be harsh, but at the same time it is but a step away from the restoration of the mutual relationship of love between Hashem and His chosen people. Just as Hashem treated Avraham like a father treats his son, giving him everything that he wants without asking for anything in return, so will Hashem continue to treat the Jewish people like a father treats his son. While the maturity of the son demand that he assume more responsibility for himself, the eternal covenant between Hashem and the Jews ensures that there will be end to even the darkest moments of Jewish history.


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