Cutting the Deal or the Return to the Rupture Referendum: Nitzavim/Vayelech 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 1:06pm -- lcanfield

I’ve got a Scotch Brogue going through my head having stayed up way too late watching streaming live coverage of the 84+% vote for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Having little stake in it myself, I was fascinated to find that until the last couple of weeks the vote would have been far more lopsided against independence than the 55-45% split that occurred. When London thought it might ‘lose’, Prime Minister Cameron started making promises if the Scots would avoid creating a historic 307 year return to the rupture between the two sovereignties.

The beginning of our portion includes a reference to the covenant the Israelites will ‘pass through,’ promises made by God dependent on our behavior. But what does it mean to pass through? Certainly not a ballot box. But, as with the Scots last night, significantly, there is a choice.

In the ancient world deals would literally be ‘cut.’ An animal would be cut in two -- the ASPCA wasn’t around back then -- and the signatories would pass through the pieces with the understanding that anyone who violated the covenant would suffer the fate of the poor animal.

In the similar Brit Bein HaBtarim that God makes with Avram a few hundred years prior to our portion, Avram dutifully cuts up the animals, God puts him into a deep sleep and promises him that although his descendants will go through a period of slavery that they will eventually return to the land. It’s unilateral -- Avram and descendants are recipients of God’s promise but have no real control over how it plays out.

Fast Forward to our portion. 

Levi Ben Gershon, Gersonides of early 14th century France, does a masterful job of explaining the Covenant God refers to this week.

Instead of a dead animal, the people will pass through two mountains described last week, Mount Eval and Mount Grizim. From the former blessings will be shouted to which the people will respond ‘Amen.’ From the latter curses will be articulated followed by the same response. 

Even in the Torah, there’s a startling evolution in the nature and format of the covenant between God and those chosen for this special relationship. 

1. With Avram, the curse and the blessing are part and parcel of the deal, the dead animal, between which one passes through. With the current covenant, the curse is on one side and the blessing on the other.

2. Here the people have a choice between choosing the blessing or the curse. The covenant itself is unilateral but the choice of curse or blessing is in the hands of the people rather than a simple promise from the stronger party.

3. The metaphor of the Covenant is completely different when one is passing through two mountains rather than the bloody sides of a carcass. By violating the covenant one is living in the curse of the valley rather than scaling the heights of the blessing, a huge opportunity cost, yet...

4. Heights can be deceiving -- just because a proclamation comes from on high, doesn’t mean it’s a blessing. Part of crossing through the new blood-less deal-markers means using ones intelligence to discern the difference between real blessings and real curses. 

The historic 307 year vote for Scottish Independence has failed. Now we’ll see whether the Government of the United Kingdom rises the mountain of living up to its promises or delves into the curse of violating them. 

In that series of decisions and gestures will come the real triumph of this historic vote and its attendant curses and blessings.

So is it true for all the promises we make, break and keep.

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp

Hazzan