PARASHAT KI TAVO: THE UNIVERSAL COVENANT
By SHLOMO RISKIN
“Guard all the commandments which I am commanding you today; and it shall be on the day when you pass through the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God is giving to you, that you shall set up for yourselves great stones… and you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah clarified completely [Hebrew, be’er hetev]… these are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to contract with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant He contracted with them at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 27:1, 2, 3, 8; 28:69)
It’s no secret that during the past two years I have become seriously involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue. In fact, here at Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat we’ve established the Susan and Roger Hertog Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and many hundreds of Christians regularly attend classes and seminars to gain a better understanding of the Jewish roots from which Christianity sprouted.
What’s interesting for me, and perhaps for my readers, is that I was initially drawn to the enterprise from this week’s biblical reading Ki Tavo, specifically the passage quoted above.
When we think of the covenants between God and the Jewish people, we usually focus on the covenant with Abraham and then the covenant at Sinai. The first is the Covenant between the Pieces, when God guaranteed Abraham progeny and a homeland (Genesis 15). The second covenant, at Sinai, was with the entire nation – the covenant of religious law, when God revealed His will in the form of ethical, moral and ritual commandments (Exodus 19-24).
But it is clear from the above-cited verses that a third covenant was made just as the people were about to enter the land. The text couldn’t be more explicit: …in addition to the covenant He contracted with them at Horeb (Sinai).
We have to ask ourselves, why a third covenant? Why weren’t the first two enough; didn’t they cover the gamut of existence, the two basics of Jewish life, our national identity and our religious destiny? What is God now adding?
When God initially told Abraham that …through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3), we get the first glimpse of how Abraham’s destiny was to extend beyond his immediate family. This is repeated when God declares: “And Abraham shall surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through him; this is because I have known [loved, chosen] him so that he may command his children and his household after him to guard the way of the Lord: to act with compassionate righteousness and moral justice…” (Gen. 18: 18,19).
Furthermore, this notion of election is confirmed with God’s promise to Jacob (ibid 28:14); the Hebrew family enters history not for itself alone, but rather to bring “blessing” to the entire world. This divine charge should not come as a surprise, because the biblical concept of God is not limited to the Lord of Israel but proclaims God as creator of the heavens, the earth and every human being.
The early chapters in Genesis record a series of failures and disappointments, starting with Adam and 10 generations, and then Noah and another 10 generations. Although after the flood, God contracts a moral covenant with Noah for all of humanity, it is not until we come to Abraham and his consecrated family that God expects His message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice to spread to the entire world. Long before we could speak of a global village, the message of one God and His insistence on universal morality was already present. The global economy of the modern world, its endless connections, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction make it imperative for the Abrahamic message of fundamental morality to become the legacy of humanity.
Hence the third covenant in this week’s portion. Just as Israel is poised to become a nation-state, assembled at the Jordan River where one may enter or leave the land, great stones are to be erected. And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law… (Deut. 27:8). What then follows are the 12 curses (Deut. 27:15-26), each directed toward a person who fails to live by a certain moral principle, resulting in 12 universal principles. This teaching is to be writ large, “clarified completely” – interpreted by the talmudic sages to mean engraved deeply and/or translated into all 70 languages. So if the first two covenants stress who we are in terms of a family, genealogical continuity and the creation of our religious identity, the third, symbolized by the erection of the stones, dramatizes our responsibility to the world as a kingdom of priest/teachers.
And here’s the problem. As stated in the Torah, if we do not “hear” God’s voice and become the moral and ethical example to the world, we will lose our homeland and turn into wanderers, prey to hatred and mass killings, victims of violence so ugly that it will stain the pages of history, our oppressors so depraved as to be no longer images of God. All this is implied in the third covenant.
Yes, for a time, we “heard,” we obeyed… and we succeeded. Josephus, among others, records how Jews, together with the Torah, were spreading all over the known world (Contra Apionem 2, 39), attracting huge numbers of converts from every part of the Roman Empire.
But sometime in the second century CE – perhaps because in our pride we forgot that it was the Torah’s superiority, and not our own, which had brought us such success – we became unable, or unworthy, of sustaining the momentum. We stopped “hearing” God’s voice, were forced to leave history, and virtually forgot the mission of the third covenant.
Remarkably, the Christians in many ways continued where we left off. Maimonides, in the unexpurgated versions of the Mishneh Torah, records: “God’s ways are too wondrous to comprehend. All those matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite who came after him are only serving to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world ‘…to worship God with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, the Torah and the commandments have become familiar topics… among the inhabitants of the far-flung islands at the ends of the globe…”
Tragically, despite its basic message of love, the evolving theology of the new church must have incorporated its own fundamental mistake, paving the way for hateful, anti-Semitic atrocities. But miraculously, nearly 2,000 years later, a sea change has embraced many leading churchmen, beginning with Pope John XXIII and his Nostra Aetate (1965), going on to include leading Protestant theologians and extending throughout the Evangelical world, which never really had a history of anti-Semitism and has been extremely supportive of the State of Israel in general and the settlement community in particular.
Now that we as a people and a nation have returned to history, and the Christian world is beginning to recognize the continuing legitimacy of its elder brother’s covenant, grafting itself onto us as a branch is grafted to the roots, we must each complete our return to God, join hands and bring a religion of love, morality, pluralism and peace to a desperate, thirsting world. The God of compassion must overcome the Satan of jihadism, and our revived dialogue and historic, even sacred, union must bring the light of freedom and security to the farthest corners of the world.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and Chief Rabbi of Efrat.
The article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on September 3, 2009