THE COVENANT IN JEWISH HISTORY
From a column by Ayal Bar-Eitan and Beni Holtzman in Yeshivat Har Etzion's Daf Kesher #369.
The relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people is given expression in the concept of the covenant. This idea is rooted in the original covenant between Hashem and the founder of the Jewish people, Avraham (Bereishit 17). At this point, the obligations all lie with Hashem – He is to serve as a God, a guide, protector, and savior. From the side of Avraham, there is the obligation only to "walk with Me and be faithful."
The eternal expression of the keeping of the covenant of Avraham is in the commandment to perform a brit mila (circumcision), performed on the eighth day of a baby boy's life. It is not by chance that the sign of the covenant was placed on this part of the individual's body. A father who brings his son into the covenant testifies to two intentions when he does so. First, he obligates his son, against his will, to be included in the covenant. Second, the son retroactively reveals his own will when he becomes cognizant of the brit mila and accepts his part in the covenantal community. When he does so, he completes the circle with his father, and looks forward to starting the next link in the chain, when he will circumcise his own son.
The broader context of the covenant with Hashem is established at Har Sinai with the giving of the Torah. From that point on, the keeping of the brit mila and the refraining from intermarriage became both a national idea and an act of religious faith. Simply stated, among the Jews there would not be a rift between the nation and its Torah, as the entrance into the nation (brit mila) was now intertwined with the entrance into the covenant at Sinai.
The history of the Jewish people is the story of their relationship to the covenant – how they kept it and failed to keep it; how they were rewarded in their land and punished in exile. During the course of history people have risen up to zealously defend the covenant and to re-establish it and the keeping of it. At times, after particularly difficult periods, there has been the establishment of a new covenant (or a renewal of the old covenant).
When the Jews wanted to mix themselves in with the disgusting culture of the Moabites, Pinchas arose and displayed his zealousness for the covenant. As such, he was rewarded with the "covenant of eternal priesthood," meriting to wear the eight garments of the high priest (Chizkuni notes that all high priests in both Temples stemmed from Pinchas).
When the Syrian-Greeks made decrees against the brit mila and commanded people to pay fealty to their idols, Mattityahu arose and displayed his zeal for the covenant, issuing a clarion call that anyone who felt a strong inner connection for the Torah and the covenant should follow him. As he told his sons: "And now, my sons, be zealous for the Torah and give your lives for the covenant of our forefathers. Remember the actions of our forefathers that they did in their generations...Avraham proved to be worthy of the tests and it was considered to be a kindness for him...Pinchas our forefather in his zeal received the covenant of eternal priesthood." (I Maccabees 2:45-64) His sons thus were victorious. A small flask of oil, sealed with the sign of the high priest, broke through the darkness. The menorah in the Temple shone a wondrous light for eight days (similar to the eight days of a brit mila and the eight garments of the priests) and leadership was returned to the Jews for two hundred years (Rambam, Hilchot Chanukah 3:1).
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