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Two Minutes of Torah

Two Minutes of Torah: Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 5:1-24) – It’s our Covenant

While I have no specific memory of the event, I love the idea that, together with all Jews of every generation, I stood atMount Sinaiwhen God gave us the Ten Commandments. We were also all witness to God’s revelation; and by reclaiming the Sinai experience as our own we include ourselves in the community who actually accepted God’s laws and commandments.

One may consider that this midrashic idea began in this week’s Torah portion. Standing on the banks of theJordan, about to enter theHoly Land, Devarim is essentially Moses’ farewell address to the people, and a history lesson recounting the previous forty years. And this week he recalls the Sinai experience, although here he speaks of a place called Horeb (a subject for another Dvar Torah).

Having gathered the Israelites together Moses declares: ‘Adonai made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our parents that Adonai made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today’ (Deuteronomy 5:2-3). At first glance this may seem reasonable enough, and it provides an appropriate preamble for the recollection of the Ten Commandments. The only problem is that there is a potential factual inaccuracy.

The Israelites stood at Sinai (Horeb) and God did speak to us there; however (aside from the later midrash) it was not the same community which now stood on the banks of the Jordan. After the spies gave their false account of the Promised Land, God decreed that ‘they shall not see the land which I swore to their ancestors’ (Numbers 14:23) – Moses even recalled this event in last week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 1:35). The community about to enter Israel was the next generation; at most they were children when God revealed Godself at Sinai. They were certainly not the generation who publicly declared: ‘Naaseh venishmah – we will do and we will listen’ (Exodus 24:7).

Despite this, Moses explicitly makes it clear that the covenant was not made with that previous generation, but that it was a covenant ‘with us, the living’. On the one hand this was a statement to the people about to enter the Land of Israel; they too stood at Sinai and made the covenant with God. But it was also an eternal statement which could be read by each generation anew. And today, as we read Vaetchanan, we hear Moses’ words that the covenant was made ‘with us, the living’. We therefore also stood at Sinai, as the midrash suggests, witnessing God’s revelation firsthand. Despite no actual memory of the event, we remember that we too were signatories to the covenant with God.

This week’s Torah portion appears to begin midway through a story as Moses continues ‘I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying “…Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ (Deuteronomy 3:23-25). The portion division reminds us, as we read Vaetchanan, that Moses will not be joining us in the Promised Land. Despite leading us from slavery to freedom, Moses will not lead us indefinitely. We must be prepared to take ownership of our destiny and our covenant with God. We possess this ability because, even if we don’t remember it, we stood at Sinai, and the covenant was not made with our ancestors, but it was made with us. Knowing this we can journey together into the Promised Land.

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