The Reciprocal Covenant
In this week’s portion, Moshe addresses the Jewish nation on the last day of his life. It was on this day that the Jewish people reentered the covenant that they had made with G-d on Mount Sinai when they received the Torah: “for you to pass into the covenant of G-d, and into His oath which G-d makes with you this day. In order to establish you today as a people to Him, and that He be a G-d to you” (Deut 29:11-12).
There are many important ideas contained in these passages.
We see that the covenant is a reciprocal one. It is not merely, that He is our G-d, but also that we are His people (This is the primary concept of Rosh Hashanah, that it is we who crown G-d as King).
The people accepted this relationship with G-d. They accepted all that the relationship entails, namely, that the laws of the Torah must be studied and kept. The keeping of the Torah is described later in this week’s portion: “when you listen to the voice of G-d, to observe His commandments and decrees, that are written in this Book of the Torah, when you shall return to G-d with all your heart and soul. For this commandment that I command you today it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in Heaven… or across the sea… rather it is near” (Deut.30:9-11).
The last verse is teaching us that the keeping of the Torah is not some esoteric idea impossible to observe. Rather, it is something within our ability to achieve.
But there arises an obvious question: the people accepted this covenant in the time of Moshe, over three thousand years ago. Is it still incumbent upon us today?
There is an interesting dichotomy in our relationship with G-d. On the one hand, our relationship is very strongly based on prior acts: the forefathers, the exodus from Egypt, etc. On the other hand, G-d constantly is renewing the world (in physics, this is called quantum uncertainty). In the portion of Va’eschanan the Torah tells us “that which I (G-d) command you today” (Deut 6:6). Rashi explains this to mean that every day we receive the Torah, and that its commandments are placed upon us anew. The Torah is as imperative to us today as it was when it was first given.
Throughout the generations there have been many groups who asked this question and told themselves that they had the right to change details. This started with Korach, in the time of Moshe, and has continued until our very own day, with the growth of pluralism. Sadly, history has proven to us what happens to these groups.
The Book of Principles, by Rabbi Yoseph Albo, outlines three criteria that are required for Jewish people: the belief in G-d, the belief that the written and oral Torah were given at Sinai (the oral Torah is the description and the elaboration of the written Torah - it is known as the Talmud), and the belief in reward and punishment, i.e., that our actions matter.
The groups who remained faithful to these criteria still identify themselves as Jews. The ones who do not believe these criteria have, sadly, been lost.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah let us all renew this special covenant we have with G-d.