By Rav Hillel Van-Leeuwen, Educational Director
At the center of our Parasha, Moshe instructs Am Yisrael to hold, once they have crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land, a covenant-renewal ceremony, to reinforce and rejuvenate their alliance with HaShem immediately after entering Eretz Yisrael. The ceremony is to be galvanized & sealed with a list of brachot [blessings] and klalot [curses].
To our surprise – indeed, to our dismay and horror – we find that there are 54 pesukim of curses, as opposed to only 14 pesukim of blessings! [The same can be said for Parashat Bechukotai, where we find only 11 pesukim of brachot and 33 pesukim of klalot].
Furthermore: Mt. Gerizim, which the people are to face while reciting the brachot, is considerably smaller than Mt. Eyval towards which the Klalot are directed (880 meters above sea level vs. 940 meters, respectively), and the altar is to be erected on Mt. Eyval, giving it a central role in the renewal of the covenant!
This seems unfair: any pact between two parties should be based on equality – the portion of “what do I get if I keep my side of the deal” should be as important as its opposite – “what happens if I fail to keep it”.
It is obvious, therefore, that our covenant with HaShem is not a 50/50 deal. We are not on par with G-d, nor should we ever expect to be. This idea is fundamental to Judaism and can be found in the underpinnings of our birth as a nation. To explain this, let’s take a quick look at an excerpt from the Pesach Hagada.
The second son in the Hagaddah, the Rasha, asks his parents:
מה העבודה הזאת לכם?
The commentators gave a few explanations as to why he deserves such a harsh reply to this seemingly-innocent question. A few noted that, as opposed to the Tzaddik, the Rasha does not use G-d’s name in his question. Others saw the problem in the short, blunt form of his question, which comes across as chutzpadik. And some focused on the word “לכם”, claiming that the Rasha practically excluded himself from the family.
Maybe we can offer yet another approach. Let’s focus on the word “עבודה” – worship. The Rasha doesn’t want to commit to a system of religious obligations. He resents this very idea as he yells out: “what is this avodah? Must you always be worshipping somebody – If not Pharaoh, then G-d Himself!? Pharaoh finally lets you leave Egypt, why are you not content with just being free of all obligations?! What made you enter this all-inclusive mega-package-deal called Judaism, with many hundreds of mitzvot you must follow throughout life, from the womb to the tomb?!”.
And how do the astonished parents reply to this rebellious son?
“אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו: בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים”
They patiently disarm the scornful question by explaining that that’s exactly the point – the very reason for HaShem redeeming us from slavery in Egypt, was to set us free so that we can directly worship Him and be bound to Him by an obligating covenant!
From the offset, when HaShem spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, he told him:
“בהוציאך את העם ממצרים, תעבדון את האלוקים על ההר הזה”
In other words, the first three stages of redemption – והוצאתי, והצלתי, וגאלתי – were carried out only for the sake of the fourth one: ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם, which is the most challenging demand and the highest expectation HaShem has from us, namely to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation by strictly following His covenant.
We can now also understand why the Hagada continues:
אילו היה שם, לא היה נגאל
Four of every five Jews living in Egypt were immersed in the fiftieth level of impurity from which there is no saving. They chose slavery in Egypt over worship of HaShem, and consequentially died in the plague of darkness. The Rasha chooses to join their fate, when he avoids the only path through which we can reach our national task. He therefore is not entitled to that deepest freedom – the cherut – which comes with being HaShem’s servants.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy put it so beautifully in five short words:
עבד ה’ הוא לבדו חופשי!
We must remember that HaShem chose us for a specific purpose – to be a light onto the nations. With the establishment of the State of Israel, we took a giant leap forward on the road to achieving this, but we still have a long way to go. Tikkun Olam begins with each individual Jew…