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The festival of Rosh Hashana, which we celebrate on September 23, is always preceded by parashat Nitzavim, the first half of the double portion to be read on September 16, and I'd like to suggest that this is hardly an accident. I believe the true significance of Rosh Hashana is explained by the special covenant we find in Nitzavim.
In order to properly understand this covenant, it's important to analyze a number of textual problems at the beginning of our portion.
Firstly, the opening verse: "You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your God - the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every person of Israel" (Deut. 29:9).
Which covenant is the Bible speaking about? Abraham entered into the Covenant of the Pieces, a national covenant promising the first patriarch progeny and a land; Moses and the Israelites entered into the Covenant at Sinai, granting and obligating the nation to a set of laws, both moral and ritual. What could possibly emanate from a third covenant, after Israel had already been established as a nation and a religion?
And how are we to understand the strange inclusion of not only those actually present, but even those who were not? How do you make a covenant with an absent party? If this refers to past generations, how can they not be "standing before God"? They are probably closer to Him than those who are alive! And if this refers to future generations, what of the fact that the Bible is constantly renewing the covenant: after the conquest of the Land in the period of Joshua (Joshua 24), after the return from Babylonian exile (Nehemiah 8) and every seven years in the dramatic event of hakhel (Maimonides, Laws of Hagiga 3), when all the Israelites are commanded to gather and re-confirm their special relationship with God.
So who are those "not standing before God this day"?
Clearly this is the covenant first mentioned in Chapter 2 of Deuteronomy (Re'eh) - the blessings and the curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal to which the Israelites were bound just before their entry into Israel. They are instructed to erect large stones on their way to Shechem (their entry point to Israel) on which "the words of this Torah" (apparently this particular covenant) were to be written "very well explained" - which means, according to our Sages, that they were to be translated into all 70 languages. The content of these stones appears to be a kind of second Decalogue, because an altar is to be erected untouched by implements of iron - identical to the command concerning the first Decalogue (Deut 27:1-8).
The content of these blessings and curses are 12 of the most significant of the Bible's moral and ethical laws: cursed are those who disobey and blessed are those who uphold the strictures against idolatry, cursing one's parents, moving one's neighbors' boundary markers (stealing, trespassing, invading one's privacy), misdirecting the blind (literally and figuratively), perverting justice for the stranger, orphan and widow, striking one's neighbor, taking a bribe and various sexual crimes (Deut 27:15-27). These are all universal laws which apply to every human being.
Hence, I would submit that this third covenant contains the rules and regulations which the Almighty imposes upon humanity, the teaching of which is our mission. After all, part of the charge we received at Sinai was to be a "kingdom of priest-teachers" - teachers to the other nations. All the prophets (for example, Isaiah 2, Micah 4, Zechariah 7, 8) envisage a time at the end of days when all the nations come to us to learn the message of ethical monotheism: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and humanity shall not learn war anymore."
Maimonides codifies the principle that just as the Bible was given to teach Jews the 613 commandments, so too it teaches the world the seven fundamental rules - such moral and ethical teachings as "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Therefore our Bible says that when the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, they are to write the 12 ethical commandments to the world in stone, and in every one of the 70 languages; this is a lesson for every visiting dignitary as well as a clear message to every entering Israelite. This third covenant was for the Jews to communicate to those who were "not with them before God" at the time of their entry into Israel. Indeed, our future (as well as the future of the world) depends on our success in fulfilling our mission.
Ezra ordained that we read about this third covenant every Rosh Hashana. The primary meaning of Rosh Hashana is our acceptance of God's kingship throughout the world; the primary challenge of Rosh Hashana is to bring the world to recognize that kingship. The weeping cry of the shofar (trua) reflects our sadness at a world not yet perfected; the exultant, exalting sound (tekiya) reflects our faith that we shall ultimately succeed.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.