"All of you standing before the Lord your God this day - your heads of tribes, your elders, your officers, every person of Israel, your children, your wives, your strangers in the midst of your encampment, from the hewers of your wood to the drawers of your water - in order to pass into a covenant and an oath which the Lord your God is establishing with you this day" (Deut. 29:9-11).
So begins this week's portion of Nitzavim-Vayelech, usually read on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashana. Moses continues on behalf of the Almighty: "It is not with you alone that I am entering into this covenant and this oath, but rather with those who are here with us standing today before the Lord our God as well as with those who are not here with us today" (ibid. 13, 14).
To whom is Moses referring when he includes "those who are not here with us today"? Are these the ancestors of his listeners, who dreamed and may even have fought for the Promised Land but never lived to see the day when the nation would be poised to enter it? Or are these their unborn descendants, to whom this eternal covenant certainly applies but who were not themselves there to enter into it?
Or perhaps Moses was referring to another group entirely.
To add a further question, you will remember that in last week's portion of Ki Tavo, where this covenant is described as the writing of the universal laws of blessings and curses on stones to be set up in all 70 languages immediately after Israel passes through the Jordan River, God describes His relationship with Israel using a word which the commentators struggle to define: "This day the Lord your God commands you these laws and commandsâ€¦ You have joined (cleaved, united - which is the way the Targum translates he'emarta, presumably from the verb amar) with the Lord this day to be for you a Godâ€¦ and to obey His voice. And the Lord has joined with you this day to be His treasured nationâ€¦ and to establish you as higher than all the nations which He has made for [His] praise, renown and glory and to establish you as a sanctified nation to the Lord your God" (Deut. 26:16-19).
What does this strange Hebrew causative verb he'emir actually mean?
Rashi tells us (ad loc.), "This word has no witness to testify on its behalf throughout the Bible," which is to say that such a causative verbal usage for the root which usually means "to speak" appears nowhere else in the Bible. He nevertheless goes on to say that it means to separate or set apart; God has set Israel apart unto Himself (to the exclusion of all other nations), and Israel has separated God unto itself (to the exclusion of all other gods). The Targum apparently accepts this basic understanding as well.
The Radak (R. David Kimhi) maintains that it means "uplifted," using the same Hebrew word used for marriage, nisuin (the groom lifting his bride across the threshold, a metaphor for covenant); the Malbim suggests that it means "sanctified" in the sense of betrothed (kadosh, kidushin); and R. Yehuda Halevi, as brought by Ibn Ezra, says it can be taken to mean "pledged troth."
The linguistic logic of all of this emanates from the fact that marriage is the entrance of two individuals into a totally new state of being on the strength of a verbal declaration. And for our prophets, marriage is certainly the prime metaphor for God's covenant with Israel (especially Hosea, "I shall betroth you unto Me foreverâ€¦," recited while winding the tefillin on one's finger).
Let us take our verbal understanding one step further. The kohanim, or Aaronide priest-teachers in Israel, are commanded to ask God to bless the Jewish people during specified times. The Bible commands in God's name: "Speak to Aaron and his sons saying, so shall you bless the children of Israel, say unto them (amor lahem)â€¦" (Numbers 6:23). This last phrase seems superfluous. The talmudic sages deduce from it that the cantor must first declare (amor, speak out) each word of the blessing, after which the word is to be repeated by the kohen. One French commentary explained the Hebrew amor as being related to the Latin-French-Spanish word amore, which means love, thereby explaining why the priestly benediction must be recited "with love" (be'ahava). Perhaps our verb in the third covenant is truly linked to this verb surrounding the priestly benediction, with both verbs related to a covenantal love between God and His nation.
Having said this, I would presume to provide yet another understanding: God has "separated" Israel unto Himself, not to the exclusion of the other nations, but rather for the sake of the other nations. After all, God created the whole world, not only Israel, and loves all of humanity, not only Israel. Did not Rabbi Akiva teach: "Beloved is the human being, who was formed in the divine image (Mishna Avot 3, 18)." And is not this third covenant focused on the world? For what other reason would it be translated into all 70 languages (Deut. 26:8)?
Just as the kohanim are the priest-teachers of the Israelites, so is Israel the teacher of the world, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests).
God has entered into a pact with Israel which has two parts: Israel must bear God's message of morality and peace to the world, and God will in turn guarantee Israel's immortality.
This is the divine charge in Ki Tavo, where God defines us as being above the nations (not exclusive of them), for it is our task to educate the world to a God of morality, love and peace. The nations united must become a source of God's praise and glory rather than the cause of His destruction.
Now we understand that those who didn't stand at Sinai - the 70 nations of the world - must stand with us when God's revelation will be "repeated a second time" as the third covenant becomes universally accepted. And it makes perfect sense that our reading precedes Rosh Hashana, when Jews must realize their true mission: to turn the wicked of the world to a God of morality, and perfect the world in the kingship of the divine.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.