Sunday, November 27th | 3 Kislev 5783

September 8, 2017 10:40 am

Ki Tavo and Our Covenant With God

avatar by Jonathan Sacks


A Torah scroll. Photo:

You have affirmed [he-emarta] this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed [he-emirkha] this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments. (Deut. 26:17-18)

The above passage, set out with disarming simplicity, describes the dual relationship of the Jewish people with God — and the reciprocity at the heart of that covenant.

This is an idea that’s been made famous by two jingles.

The first, that of William Norman Ewer:

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How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews

And the second, the Jewish riposte:

Not quite
So odd
The Jews
Chose God

Between God and His people, there is a mutual bond of love. The Israelites pledge themselves to be faithful to God and His commands. and God pledges Himself to cherish the people as His treasure — for though He is the God of all humanity, He holds a special place in His affection for the descendants of those who first heard and heeded His call. This is the whole of Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible. The rest is commentary.

The English translation of the above Torah verse is that of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh. Any translation, however, tends to conceal the difficulty in the key verb in both sentences: le-ha’amir. What is strange is that, on the one hand, it is a form of one the most common of all biblical verbs, lomar, “to say.” On the other, the specific form used here — the hiphil, or causative form — is unique. Nowhere else does it appear in this form in the Bible, and its meaning is, as a result, obscure.

The JPS translation reads it as “affirmed.” Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, reads it as “declared allegiance to.” Robert Alter renders it, “proclaimed.” Other interpretations include “separated to yourself” (Rashi), “chosen” (Septuagint), “recognized” (Saadia Gaon), “raised” (Radak, Sforno), “betrothed” (Malbim), “given fame to” (Ibn Janach), “exchanged everything else for” (Chizkuni), “accepted the uniqueness of” (Rashi to Chagigah 3a), or “caused God to declare” (Judah Halevi, cited by Ibn Ezra).

Among Christian translations, the King James Version has: “Thou hast avouched the Lord this day to be thy God.” The New International Version reads: “You have declared this day that the Lord is your God.” The Contemporary English Version says: “In response, you have agreed that the Lord will be your God.”

What is the significance of this unique form of the verb “to say”? Why is it used here?

The use of language in the Torah is not vague, accidental, approximate or imprecise. In general, in the Mosaic books, style mirrors substance. The way that something is said is often connected to what is being said. So it is here.

What we have before us is a proposition of far-reaching consequence for the most fundamental question that humanity can ask itself: What is the nature of the bond between human beings and God — or between human beings and one another — such that we can endow our lives with the charisma of grace? The answer given by the Torah, so profound that we need to stop and meditate on it, lies in language — speech — words. Hence the singling out, in this definitive statement of Jewish faith, of the verb meaning “to say.”

Language is the medium that we use to describe what is. But that is only one use of language, and there are many others. We use it to classify, and to divide the world up into particular slices of reality. We also use it to evaluate. “Patriotism” and “jingoism” both denote the same phenomenon — loyalty to one’s country, but with opposite evaluations: patriotism is “good,” and jingoism is “bad.”

We also use language to express emotion. Sometimes we use it simply to establish a relationship. Malinowsky called this phatic communion, where what matters is not what we say, but the mere fact that we are talking to one another. We can also use language to question, command, hypothesize and imagine. There are literary genres like fiction and poetry that use language in complex ways to extend our imaginative engagement with reality. The philosophical-scientific mindset that sees the sole significant function of language as descriptive — taken to an extreme in the philosophical movement known as “logical positivism” — is a form of tone-deafness to the rich variety of speech.

The Mosaic books contain a deep set of reflections on the nature and power of language. This has much to do with the fact that the Israelites of Moses’ day were in the place where, and the time when, the first alphabet appeared. This was the proto-semitic script from which all subsequent alphabets are directly or indirectly derived.

Judaism marks the world’s first transition on a national scale from an oral to a literate culture. Hence the unique significance that we attach to the spoken and written word. We discover this at the very beginning of the Torah, when it takes the form of the radical abandonment of myth.

God spoke and the world came into being. There is no contest, no struggle, no use of force to subdue rival powers –as there is in every other myth without exception. Instead, the key verb in Genesis 1 is simply leimor: “God said [vayomer], Let there be … and there was.” Language creates worlds.

That, of course, is Divine — not human — speech.

Yet J. L. Austin pointed out that there is a human counterpart. There are certain things that we can create with words when we use them in a special way. Austin called this use of speech performative utterance. For example, when a judge says, “This court is now in session,” he is not describing something but doing something. When a groom says to his bride under the wedding canopy — “Behold you are betrothed to me by this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel” — he is not stating a fact, but creating a fact.

The most basic type of performative utterance is making a promise. Some are highly specific (“I promise to pay you £1,000”), but others are open-ended (“I promise to look after you, come what may”). The supreme example of an open-ended mutual pledge between human beings is marriage. The supreme example of an open-ended mutual pledge between human beings and God is a covenant. That is what our two verses state: that God and the people of Israel pledge themselves to one another by making a covenant, a relationship brought into existence by words, and sustained by honoring those words.

This is the single most radical proposition in the Hebrew Bible. It has no real counterpart in any other religion. What is supremely holy is language. This means that the supreme form of the relationship is one that does not depend on power, superior force or dominant-submissive hierarchy. In a covenantal relationship, both parties respect the dignity of the other. A covenant exists only in virtue of freely given consent.

It also means that between Infinite God and infinitesimal humanity there can be relationship – because, through language, the two sides can communicate with one another. The key facts of the Torah are that [a] God speaks and [b] God listens. The use of language to create a mutually binding relationship is what links God and humankind. Thus the two verses mean: “Today, by an act of speech, you have made God your Godand God has made you His people.”

Hence the name that I have given this series of Torah commentary: Covenant and Conversation. Judaism is a covenant, a marriage between God and a people. The Torah is the written record of that covenant. It is Israel’s marriage-contract as God’s bride. Conversation — speaking and listening — is what makes covenant possible. Hence the dual form of Torah: the written Torah, through which God speaks to us, and the Oral Torah, through which we speak to God by way of interpreting His word.

Judaism is the open-ended, mutually binding, conversation between Heaven and earth.

Despite the deep influence of Judaism on two later faiths, Christianity and Islam, neither adopted this idea (to be sure, some Christian theologians speak of covenant, but a different kind of covenant, more unilateral than reciprocal). There are no conversations between God and human beings in either the New Testament or the Koran – specifically, there are none that echo the dialogues in Tanakh between God and Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Jonah, Habakkuk and Job.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the religion of sacred dialogue, the religion of salvation and the religion of submission — are three different things.

The use of language to create a moral bond of love between the infinite and the finite — through covenant on the one hand, and conversation on the other — is what makes Judaism different. Speaking a relationship into being, le-ha’amir, is what makes God our God, and us, His people.

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