“Renewing the Covenant”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Moses, on the last day of his life, dramatically gathers all the people of Israel, from the most noble and notable, to the meekest and the most modest, to pass them all through the covenant of G-d.

On this fateful day, Moses speaks boldly to the people of Israel in the name of G-d, saying (Deuteronomy 29:9-14), “Ah’tem nee’tza’veem ha’yohm kool’chem lifnay Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem, ra’shay’chem shiv’tay’chem zik’nay’chem v’shoht’ray’chem, kol eesh Yisrael,” You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd, your G-d: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers–all the men of Israel; your small children, your women and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. In order to initiate you into the covenant of the L-rd, your G-d, and into His oath, that the L-rd, your G-d, seals with you today. In order to establish you today as a people to Him, and that He be a G-d to you, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the L-rd our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today.

Our commentators point out that all previous covenants were concluded with individuals. Now, for the first time, a national covenant is enacted with all the people–past, present and future.

What does it mean to conclude a covenant with the past, present and future members of the nation? There are those who say that the covenant with G-d was purposely executed in this manner in order to negate the argument of those who would say that G-d gave the land of Israel only to the contemporary generation, the generation of the wilderness, and not to future generations. There can now be no doubt that the land was given to all generations.

When Moses declares, in Deuteronomy 29:14, “Kee et ah’sher yesh’no poh ee’mah’noo o’mayd ha’yom lif’nay Hashem Eh’lo’kay’noo, v’ayt ah’sher ay’neh’noo poh ee’mah’noo ha’yom,” He is declaring that this covenant is concluded with those who are here, standing with us today, and with those who are not here. The redundant language of “poh” and “ee’mah’noo” (here and with us) implies that it is possible to be physically present but not spiritually connected to the people of Israel, and to be physically absent, but spiritually connected to the people of Israel.

The multi-generational tradition of Judaism is an essential thesis of Judaism. Each day, Jews throughout the world say in the central daily prayer of the Amidah the words, “Eh’lo’kay’noo vay’lo’kay ah’vo’tayn’oo,” Our G-d, and G-d of our fathers. Certainly most Jews believe in Judaism because of their inherited traditions, because they were fated to be born the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jews, whose legacy they treasure. Who knows how many Jews would have identified with Judaism if it weren’t for the fact that their grandparents and great-grandparents were Jews? It is this genetic identification that makes it possible for Jews, who never themselves went out of Egypt, to still relive the exodus each year at their Passover Seders. Even Jews who were not physically at Mount Sinai still celebrate the giving of the Torah on Simchat Torah and Shavuot, as if they were there. Judaism is a birthright that gives legitimacy to the claim of being part of the Jewish nation.

But, how could Moses have made a covenant with future generations who were unable to agree or disagree with the covenant, or to accept or refuse to be a part of the agreement?

It was undoubtedly Moses’ intention to mobilize all the people of his time, to help them focus, not only on the past, not only on the present, but specifically on the future. Moses intended to have the Jews who were with him understand that their sincerity, passion and commitment at the time that Moses concluded the covenant with them would impact profoundly on future generations. The people’s lack of sincerity and passion would certainly reduce the commitment of future generations, while their enthusiasm when embracing the covenant, would benefit all future generations.

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. It is no accident that the theme of “Teshuva” (repentance) is repeated no less than eight times in different forms in the first ten verses of chapter 30.

As the High Holy Days rapidly approach, we must surely renew our commitment to the covenant of old. We must feel the passion of our ancestors and affirm that commitment in our own daily lives. But most of all, we need to recognize that our actions today will serve as guideposts for future generations and greatly impact upon them.

Surely, the legacy that we create today will either attract or repel future generations.

Our commitment today to Jewish life must be firm. Our commitment today to Jewish education, for ourselves and for our children, must be uncompromised. Our commitment today to the survival of the State of Israel and its people must be unshakable. Our commitment to G-d and to the Jewish future must be total and unambiguous.

After all, when Moses spoke 3,300 years ago in the name of G-d, he was speaking to us. And now, we must respond to him, by wholeheartedly embracing G-d’s covenant.

L’shana Tovah Ti’katevu–-May you be written and inscribed for a blessed and peaceful year!

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashanah is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 28, 29 and 30, 2011.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.