The dawning of a new covenant

With the first covenant ceasing to exist, a new covenant was mandated.

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 21:46

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The Torah potion of Behar begins with a seemingly benign introduction (Vayikra 25:1):

“And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,”

What could be the possible problem with this verse? The commentaries jump on the addition of “Mount Sinai”. As is clear from the Torah, the commandments were all given at Mount Sinai. Why would the Torah then reiterate the location?

There is also a significant debate concerning how the timeline is presented in the Torah. Often, events take place that seem to defy the historical order. An explanation often given is that the Torah does not, in fact, always follow a past to future order. In this instance, we are not to think that there was a return to Mount Sinai and new commandments given. As well, we cannot conclude that there was an incomplete transmission of all the commandments at Mount Sinai.

This is all fine and good. However, one must still wonder what exactly is the significance of mentioning Mount Sinai.

Ramban, in his commentary on this verse, offers a unique view on the objective. He begins with setting the historical stage:

“In my opinion, however, [our section] was written here in the proper order, for the explanation of ‘on Mount Sinai’ is when [Moses] ascended there (referring to second time he went up) to receive the second Tablets.”

To help clarify the context, we know that Moshe was at the top of Mount Sinai for a forty-day period, where he received the original Tablets, along with the commandments. Upon his descent, he found the Jewish people engaged in worship of the Golden Calf. He then broke those Tablets. With the fate of the Jewish nation in the balance, Moshe pleads the case for saving them. God responds with a directive to ascend Mount Sinai again for another forty day period, where Moshe would receive the second set of Tablets.

Ramban then refers to an important episode that took place prior to Moshe’s first ascent to Mount Sinai.  During a ceremony described at the end of the Torah portion of Mishpatim, Moshe wrote in the “Book of the Covenant” all that God had commanded. After, there were  sacrifices offered, and blood was thrown onto the Jewish people. Moshe then ascends, descends, and breaks the Tablets.

Ramban notes that there was a covenant in place prior to the breaking of the Tablets:
“And when [the people] sinned with the Calf and the Tablets were shattered, it was as if this covenant had been annulled as far as the Holy One, blessed be He, was concerned.”

With the first covenant ceasing to exist, a new covenant was now mandated:

“And when the Holy One, blessed be He, showed reconciliation to Moshe by the second Tablets, He commanded him about a new covenant….Moshe descended and commanded them regarding everything that God had commanded him on Mount Sinai.”

Ramban then explains that Moshe at first only gave them the commandments concerning the building of theTabernacle, which caused the Jewish nation to recognize that even though they sinned, the Divine Providence would still be present. The construction then took place. Once this was completed, the commandments for the sacrifices were given, along with the laws pertaining the Kohanim. The next stage brings us to this week’s Torah portion:

“And when he had completed, he said to them ‘God commanded me further upon Mount Sinai to elaborate for you the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee, and to forge a new covenant with you over all the commandments and ordinances, under [penalty of] an imprecation and oath.”

Why didn’t Moshe then redo the ceremony with the sacrifices and blood?

“And it was not necessary at this time for [Moshe] to slaughter sacrifices and throw half the blood upon the people and half the blood upon the Altar as he had done initially. Rather, they accepted the original covenant upon themselves under penalty of these imprecations and curses”

What made this second covenant markedly different? The inclusion of the curses. The covenant (third one) completed in Moab was also completed with this inclusion of curses (let’s not forget the blessings). Thus, we find the description of the curses taking place at the end of the Book of Vayikra, as well as at the end of the Torah portion of Ki Tavo.

Ramban successfully interprets the timeline to fit the order as written in the Torah. However, his idea of a new set of covenants requires further elaboration. Ramban emphasizes how the curses take center stage in this covenant, evident consequences to abandonment of the Torah and its commandments. Are we to conclude that there were no consequences to speak of had there been only one covenant? What would happen if the Jewish people committed sin? Why did therefore need to be an entirely new covenant?

In order to understand this new covenant, we must first understand the nature of the sin of the Golden Calf. After Moshe did not descend from Mount Sinai, based on the faulty calculation of the Jewish people, the turn to idolatry took place. When we study that tragic event, it becomes evident that the nature of the flaw was not an outright rejection of God. The great challenge of belief in God, where God is not expressed in any physical matter whatsoever, was something they could not overcome. God is removed, qualitatively distinct, not able to be studied through empirical methods. There was a constant sense of insecurity; Moshe was the temporary salve. Moshe became the “stand-in” for God, allowing for that void to be filled. When Moshe did not return, the Jewish people did not abandon God outright; rather, they turned to Moshe’s replacement, manifest in the Golden Calf.

This should not be understood as an attempt to minimize the absolute devastating reality of the flawed relationship between the Jewish people and God. However, it does help understand the transition from the first to second covenant. Of course, there would be consequences in the first iteration. However, the structure of that covenant was predicated on the correct view of God, specifically in the ability to worship God and place their entire security in Him. There would be a Tabernacle, a centralized form of worship. The commandments would contain the potential for Divine reward and punishment. But their role would be secondary, as the desire of the Jewish people to worship God properly and follow the ideal path for life would be the essential driving force.

If the relationship was incorrect from the start, as evidenced by the sin of the Golden Calf, the first covenant was a flawed enterprise. In fact, the failure to abide by the covenant should have resulted in the annihilation of the Jewish people. Moshe’s pleas to God change that result, but necessitated a whole new covenant. In this version, Divine Providence now takes center stage.

The Jewish people needed to be able to point to something, to be given that empirical evidence of Divine Providence they state as demonstrative evidence. In the ideal covenant, the importance of this evidence would be minimized (but still present). Now, with the reality of this inherent flaw in the Jewish nation, bringing with it a significant change in the relationship between God and the Jewish people, a new covenant was necessary. The key difference will be a reorientation of those aspects that reflect Divine Providence. Whereas before these components were more ancillary, they would now come to the forefront.

Moshe thus begins with implementing the commandments surrounding the Tabernacle, its construction pivotal to ensure that flaw was being handled properly. The Tabernacle was where the Divine Presence would reside. As well, immense detail is now placed concerning the blessings and curses, particularly the negative consequences. It is possible before the second covenant, a mere mention of the abstract concept of punishment would have been sufficient. However, with the new covenant, the specifics were necessary, allowing the Jewish people to observe clear indication of Divine Providence.

The second covenant, per Ramban, was a new opportunity to re-forge our relationship with God. It ensured that the Jewish people would never be destroyed. Sadly, it also incorporated a reality of the immense challenge we could not overcome. We should always be aware to work on overcoming the flaw and trying to place all of our security in the true idea of God.