Covenant and Conversation – Covenant & Conversation

Nitzavim-Vayelech – 4th September 2010 – 25th Elul 5770

At the end of his life, Moses gave the people the penultimate command – the 612th of the 613 that comprise the Torah. It was a command of far-reaching significance. The Israelites were about to cross the Jordan, and enter and take possession of the promised land. There they would begin life as a self-governing nation under the sovereignty of G-d.

It would not be easy. With his prophetic eye turned to the furthermost horizon of the future, Moses had been warning the people throughout Devarim that the real dangers would be the ones they least suspected. They would not be war or famine or poverty or natural disaster. They would be ease and affluence and freedom and prosperity.

That is when a nation is in danger of forgetting its past and its mission. It becomes complacent; it may become corrupt. The rich neglect the poor. Those in power afflict the powerless. The people begin to think that what they have achieved, they achieved for and by themselves. They forget their dependence on G-d. At the very height of its powers, Israelite society would develop fault-lines that would eventually lead to disaster.

No one has set out the terms of survival of a civilization more starkly than Moses in Deuteronomy. Nations begin to die from within. Affluence leads to overconfidence which leads to forgetfulness which leads to decadence which leads to lack of social solidarity which leads in the end to demoralization – the prelude to defeat. Israel’s very existence, said Moses, would depend on memory, mission and morality – remembering where it came from, what it is called on to do, and how it is called on to do it. Hence the great 612th command, known as Hakhel, or national assembly:

At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your G-d at the place He will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people-men, women and children, and the strangers living in your towns-so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your G-d and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your G-d as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess. (Deut. 31: 10-13)

Once every seven years, on the second day of Sukkot in the year after the sabbatical year, the king was to gather the people together in the Temple courtyard and read to them from the Torah – specifically, selections from Deuteronomy itself (the details are set out in Rambam, Hilkhot Chagigah, chapter 3). Hakhel was a re-enactment of the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai (Rambam ad loc. 3: 6). It was intended to remind the people of their history, the laws they are called on to keep and the principles they must live by. It was to be a ceremony of national rededication – a renewal of their inherited and chosen destiny, a reminder of the duties they owed to their ancestors, their descendants not yet born and, primarily, to G-d Himself.

We do not know how this command was carried out in practice. Yet one thing is clear from the biblical record. It is what the leaders of the nation did at critical junctures in their history. Joshua did so at the end of his life (Joshua 24). King Josiah did so when the Torah was rediscovered during a restoration of the Temple:

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the Temple of the Lord with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets-all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the Temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – to follow the Lord and keep His commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. (II Kings 23: 1-3)

Ezra did so for the generation that saw the return of exiles from Babylon:

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nehemiah 8: 2-3)

Hakhel has a significance that goes far beyond its specific details. It belongs to a unique form of politics – covenantal politics. Philip Selznick, in his The Moral Commonwealth, explains: “The compact creates a self-conscious moral order. Most vividly at Sinai, the agreement with G-d is an agreement to uphold a code of responsible conduct. G-d’s commands are obeyed by fulfilling obligations to family and community; a social ethic is the linchpin of the covenant” (ibid., 478-9). Covenantal politics are moral politics; they involve ideas of duty and obligation. They are also interwoven with a particular view of the history of the nation, whose fate is seen as a reflection of its success or failure in honouring the terms laid down by its founders.

Only one nation in modern times has constructed its politics in terms of a covenant, namely the United States, whose Puritan founding fathers were saturated by the ideas of Deuteronomy, and which has continued, to the present day, to see itself in these terms. Some years ago, writing my Commentary to the Haggadah, I made a remarkable discovery (helped by the insights of American sociologist Robert Bellah: see his Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant). Something like Hakhel still exists. It is called an American Presidential Inaugural Address.

What an American President does in an Inaugural Address is recognizably in the tradition of Josiah and Ezra in biblical times. He recapitulates the nation’s history. He speaks of the principles and ideals on which it is based (most famously, of course, in a speech that was not an Inaugural, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”). He reviews the challenges the nation faces if it is to stay faithful to those ideals. And regardless of whether the President is personally religious or not, the speech will be religious in tone, biblical in language, and include, explicitly or implicitly, reference to G-d.

Here for example is John F Kennedy in 1961:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe-the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of G-d.


And this, Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965:

They came here-the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened-to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.

Here is Ronald Reagan, in 1985:

History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us . . . For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the G-d who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound-sound in unity, affection, and love-one people under G-d, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.

And this, George W. Bush in 2005:

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation . . . History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

In no other country do political leaders speak in these terms (the closest is Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic). American Presidential Inaugurals from 1789 to today are best understood as a continuing commentary to the Book of Deuteronomy, and as a secular counterpart to the command of Hakhel.

Today the State of Israel faces formidable problems. So, in different ways, do Britain and the rest of Europe. Terror threatens freedom across the globe. There is nothing inevitable about the survival of great powers: the pages of history are littered with tales of their decline and fall. Few indeed are those that have defeated this almost inevitable cycle. Moses must surely rank as the greatest political leader of all time (Jean-Jacques Rousseau said so, in a note discovered after his death), and the institution of Hakhel was central to his vision.

What Moses understood so clearly is that a nation that loses its sense of purpose cannot survive. Purpose does not come from nowhere. It is shaped by historians and prophets; taught in schools and homes; rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in Hakhel-type moments. It is essentially religious, for if not, then it becomes (as the late Yeshayah Leibowitz never failed to remind us) idolatry – a nation worshipping itself. It may sound strange, yet I truly believe, that finding a contemporary equivalent of Hakhel is our most pressing task if free societies are to survive.

Have in front of you the image of a single human child.
Thought For The Day – 6 September 2002

Tonight sees the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the beginning of ten days of penitence in which we reflect on the past, rededicate ourselves to the future, and ask G-d in the coming year to write us in the book of life.

Jewish tradition sees the new year as the anniversary of creation; the “big bang,” the moment the universe began. And one thing has always struck me about these days: the biblical readings we recite in the synagogue. You would have thought we would read the majestic opening chapter of the Bible: And G-d said let there be, and there was. The story of creation.

But actually we don’t. Instead, we read about the birth of the first Jewish child, Isaac, born to Abraham and Sarah after many years of waiting. We read about Hannah and her prayer for a child, which was also answered. I find that deeply moving. On this day of days we read not about G-d’s act of creation, but about ours; not about the echoing vastness of the universe, 18 billion light years across; but about the joy and responsibility of bringing new life into the world. We don’t think of G-d as the master scientist devising systems of organised complexity, but as a parent, loving and forgiving us, his children.

There have been times, these past twelve months, when the problems of the twenty first century – Afghanistan, Iraq, the middle east, the environment, the global economy – have seemed almost impossibly intractable. How do you begin to get a grip on issues so difficult to analyze, let alone solve. Yet one thing seems clear to me, that what matters is not only the critical intelligence we bring to bear, but also our fundamental vision, our starting point. And on this the Jewish new year has something simple but quite important to say. Don’t think about the past; or even present calculations of political interest or economic gain. Ask what impact this will have on future generations. Have in front of you the image of a single human child.

Children are the sufferers of the twenty-first century. 113 million of them have no schooling. 150 million are malnourished. 30,000 die each day from preventable diseases. They have no vote, no power, no voice, yet they are the ones who’ll suffer tomorrow for the mistakes we make today. The message of Rosh Hashanah is that greater even than an understanding of creation is the ability to hear the cry of a child.