The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Why A Third Covenant?

Why A Third Covenant?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 7:19 p.m.

Torah: Deuteronomy 26:1 29:8 

Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

Sabbath ends: 8:22 p.m.


“You shall set up for yourselves great stones … and you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah clarified completely. … These are the words of the covenant … which the Lord commanded Moses to contract with the Children of Israel in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant He contracted with them at Horeb (Sinai)" [Deuteronomy 27:1-8, 28:69].

When we think of the covenants between God and the Jewish people, we usually focus on the covenant with Abraham and then the covenant at Sinai. The first is the covenant “between the pieces,” when God guaranteed Abraham progeny and a homeland [Genesis 15]. The second covenant, at Sinai, was with the entire nation, the covenant of religious law, when God revealed His will in the form of ethical, moral and ritual commandments [Exodus 19-24].

However, this week we learn of a third covenant, marked by the stones in Moab, by the Jordan River.

Why a third covenant? Didn’t the previous two, with Abraham and at Sinai, cover our national identity and our religious destiny? What is God now adding?

In order to understand, we must hark back to the Divine election of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. God tells Abraham that “through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” [Genesis 12:3], meaning that the Jewish mission is to reach out to the world, teaching compassionate righteousness and moral justice [Gen. 18:18-19].

Indeed, Maimonides rules that the Jewish people are obligated to teach the world the seven Noahide laws, the universal laws of ethics and human inviolability [Laws of Kings 10.8]. Hence the third covenant in this week’s portion. Just as Israel assembles at the Jordan River — the gateway to the Land of Israel to become a nation-state — God commands them to erect great stones, “And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law” [Deut. 27:8].

What then follows are the Twelve Curses [Deut. 27:15-26], directed toward anyone who fails to live by an explicit moral code, resulting in 12 universal principles.

This teaching is to be writ large, “clarified completely,” interpreted by the Talmudic Sages to mean engraved deeply and/or translated into all 70 languages of the world. So if the first two covenants stress who we are in terms of a family — between Abraham (genealogical continuity) and our religious identity (Sinai) — the third, symbolized by the stones, dramatizes our responsibility to the world as a kingdom of priest/teachers.

Tragically however, if we do not “hear” God’s voice, which commands us to be an ethical example to the world, we will lose our homeland and turn into wanderers, prey to hatred and murder. We will become victims of violence perpetrated by oppressors so depraved as to be no longer images of God. All this is implied in the third covenant.

Yes, for a time, we “heard,” we obeyed, and we succeeded. Josephus, among others, records how Jews, together with the Torah, were spreading all over the known world [Contra Apionem 2, 39], attracting huge numbers of converts from every part of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, sometime in the second century of the Common Era — perhaps because in our pride we forgot that it was the Torah’s superiority, and not our own, which had brought us such success — we became unable, or unworthy, of sustaining the momentum. We stopped “hearing” God’s voice, were forced to leave history, and virtually forgot the mission of the third covenant.

As strange as it might sound, Maimonides — who deplored Christianity as idolatry — nevertheless writes that at least in this regard the Christians continued where we left off. In the unexpurgated versions of the Mishneh Torah, he records: “God’s ways are too wondrous to comprehend. All those matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite who came after him are only serving to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world ‘…to worship God with one accord’ [Zephaniah 3:9]. Thus the messianic hope, the Torah and the commandments have become familiar topics … among the inhabitants of the far-flung islands at the ends of the globe…”

Unfortunately however, the evolving theology of the new church paved the way for hateful, anti-Semitic atrocities. But miraculously, nearly 2,000 years later, a sea change has embraced many leading churchmen, beginning with Pope John XXIII and his Nostra Aetate (1965), and going on to include leading Protestant theologians and the world of Evangelicals (who never had a history of anti-Semitism and has been extremely supportive of the State of Israel in general and the settlement community in particular). There is a growing Christian recognition of the eternal legitimacy of its “elder brother’s” covenants.

Now, thank God, we as a nation have returned to history, in the “Beginning of the period of our redemption.” Many are the miracles all around us, including our military victories, the ingathering of the exiles, and the positive changes in the Christian.

On the other side is the growing threat of extremist Islam with its suicide bombers and commitment to jihadism. The God of compassion must overcome the Satan of jihadism, while we must join hands with our Christian “younger brothers,” bringing a religion of love, morality and peace to the farthest corners of the world. n

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

read more: