This week’s Parasha, Va’etchanan, begins rather dramatically. Moses discovers that he will not be entering the Land of Israel, which must have been extraordinarily difficult news to bear, after being the leader of the Jewish people for almost 40 years whilst wandering in the desert.
It would be so easy, at this low point, to resort to anger, or bitterness, or despair, especially after working so hard, and for so long, to achieve the monumental goal of bringing one’s people to the Promised Land. In fact, the name of the Parasha translates to “and he pleaded”, describing Moses’ first reaction upon hearing the devastating news.
However, Moses is not one to wallow for too long, and he ultimately translates his sadness and disappointment into meaningful action, using his circumstances to remind the People of Israel of the Covenant that they have made with G-d, or the commandments they have promised to adhere to, telling them “oo’sh’martem v’asitem” - “you shall keep them and do them” (Deut. 4:6).
Which brings us to the notion of what it means to have entered into a Covenant with G-d. Does it simply mean to follow G-d’s orders, no matter what those might be? Or are we able to derive deeper meaning from what can sometimes seem like the impossibly high standards and expectations set for us? (to paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, a Professor at my school, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
By way of answer, I see the Covenant as both a promise and a symbol of trust, because to make promise is also to trust that person, or entity, to keep it. In this case, G-d has made the ultimate promise, the Covenant, with Moses, who has in turn entrusted our ancestors, the People of Israel, with its keeping.
In fact, so serious is Moses about ensuring the Covenant is kept - in other words, that this promise remains intact, and the trust justified - that to emphasise his point, he repeats the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), as well as the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), two of the key foundational credos of our Jewish faith.
When thinking about our own lives, it is not hard to see that the world in which we currently live is highly fractious, and full of division, cynicism and scepticism, when it comes to the people and events surrounding us. Put differently, it is not a world where a lot of promises are kept, or where a significant level of trust exists.
This is particularly poignant on the heels of Tisha B’Av, which we commemorated mere days ago. We learn from the Babylonian Talmud that it was the breaking of promises, in the form of three central mitzvot (not to commit idolatry, engage in forbidden relations, or to murder), as well as the trust associated with them, together with “sin’at chinam”, or “baseless hatred”, that led to the destruction of the First and Second Temples on this occasion.
However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his own reflection on Va’etchanan, quotes the Ramban when he says that “one should behave in every sphere of activity, until he is worthy of being called ‘good and upright’”, referring to the phrase found in our Parasha, “ha-yashar v’ha-tov” (“good and upright”) (Deut. 6:18).
To me, this exemplifies how the Covenant could truly be interpreted: perhaps, as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster suggests, we extend our understanding of our Covenant with G-d to include being “good and upright” in all facets of our lives, using the Covenant as a model for deep, committed and understanding relationships with our fellow human beings, too.
On that note, I would like to end by proposing that, if we have a little more trust in each other, and see all our relationships with others as though we have entered into Covenants with those people, then maybe, just maybe, we can become better people, and the world can become a brighter place.
Eliza McCarroll is a first year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. A native of Sydney, Australia, she is currently living in Jerusalem as she begins her studies.
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