Skip to main content

Vayelekh | "The Law of Contracts" From the Perspective of Future Generations

Rav Gad Eldad
05.09.2021

Wordfile>>

*******************************************************************
This week's shiurim are dedicated in honor of longtime
VBM editor Meira Mintz, with gratitude for her outstanding contribution
to the readability and clarity of thousands of our shiurim.

*****************************************************************

Our parasha consists of a single chapter, yet it covers a number of issues, some of which even appear twice.[1]

While Yehoshua is being ordained as Moshe's successor, God reveals the calamities that will come upon the people in the future due to their sins (Devarim 31:16-21): [2]

And the Lord said to Moshe: Behold, you are about to sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they have turned to other gods. Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten their fill, and become fat; and turned to other gods, and served them, and despised Me, and broken My covenant; then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their inclination how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.

The fact that punishment will be imposed on the people of Israel should they violate the laws of the Torah and the covenant has been repeated many times in the Torah. The novelty in the current formulation lies in its absoluteness. This is not simply a possible scenario that will depend on how future events unfold, but a decisive prophecy that the calamity will indeed come, since the people will surely sin. This difference in itself can be understood in light of the circumstances in which these words were uttered. They were stated not in a public setting, but before a narrow "cabinet" of the present and future leadership. In this limited forum, God reveals to Moshe the events of the future that he will not live to see.

It may seem that the only difference between what is described in our parasha, and the calamities described in previous covenants, is the removal of the question mark that hovered over the catastrophe scenario, replaced by an exclamation point. We wish to demonstrate that a careful reading of the text indicates that the difference does not end there.

"And You Shall Return to the Lord Your God"

There is no need to go back very far, for only one chapter earlier, we find a parallel description of events. In that portrayal, however, the calamity bears fruit and the people then return to God – who receives them with open arms (30:1-6):

And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall bethink yourself among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you, and shall return to the Lord your God, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; that then the Lord your God will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where the Lord your God has scattered you. …. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live. 

For the purpose of comparison, let us consider the description of the effect of the calamitous events described in the covenant made at Mount Chorev (Vayikra 26:39-42):

And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity in your enemies' lands; and also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them. And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary to Me. I also will walk contrary to them, and bring them into the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised heart be humbled, and they then be paid the punishment of their iniquity; then will I remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land. 

Here, the people confess their sins and repent – as Scripture characterizes it, they humble their uncircumcised hearts. This layer is absent, however, at the end of the account of the calamity described in the covenant in Moav (Devarim 28:58-69):

If you will not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awful Name, the Lord your God; then the Lord will make your plagues wondrous, and the plagues of your seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance… And you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because you did not hearken to the voice of the Lord your God… And the Lord shall scatter you among all peoples, from the one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, which you have not known, you nor your fathers, even wood and stone. And among these nations you shall have no repose, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot… In the morning you shall say: Would it were evening! and at evening you shall say: Would it were morning! for the fear of your heart which you shall fear, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. And the Lord shall bring you back into Egypt in ships, by the way whereof I said to you: You shall see it no more again; and there you shall sell yourselves to your enemies as bondmen and as bondwomen, and no man shall buy you. These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moav, besides the covenant which He made with them in Chorev.[3]

"Are Not These Evils Come Upon Us Because Our God Is Not Among Us?"

Against the background of the verses cited above, it seems that the event described in our parasha is of a unique nature. After describing the future sins of the people, God says (31:17):

Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?

On the one hand, the people react to what is happening, and in this way it is certainly different from the calamity described at the covenant of the plains of Moav, where no reaction is mentioned at all. However, their reaction is vague. They recognize that the events befalling them are due to the fact that God is no longer in their midst, but unlike in Devarim 30 or the description in Vayikra of the covenant of Chorev, this recognition is not accompanied by repentance. The people's "scientific interpretation" of the events is portrayed as a cold analysis that doesn't seem to influence their conduct in any way. This is the reading of the Seforno (v. 17):

"Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?" These things happened to us because the Shekhina departed from among us. But even though they thought this, they did not turn to prayer or repentance.[4]

Since the people do not turn from their evil ways, God continues to distance and conceal Himself. His response, described in the following verse, is completely understandable and even expected (vv. 18-19):

And I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they have turned to other gods. Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.

At precisely the same time that the story reaches its climax, as we witness a crisis in the relationship between the people of Israel and their God, the curtain comes down and Scripture is silent as to the further sequence of events. The reader is simply instructed to move on and study the song in the following chapter. We must, therefore, ask: How does the song settle the reader's mind regarding the continuation of the narrative? Further, what is it about the account in our chapter, that it draws a song in its wake which did not appear in any of the parallel accounts?

"Now Therefore Write This Song for You"

We noted at the outset that our chapter contains double references. Indeed, immediately in the following verses, before getting to the song, Scripture once again summarizes what we know so far – without adding an obvious answer to the questions posed above (vv. 20-21):

For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten their fill, and become fat; and turned to other gods, and served them, and despised Me, and broken My covenant; then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their inclination how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.

At this point, we wish to propose the following. The Torah has taught us on several occasions about reciprocity in the relationship between God and His people. Each time, we see a basic formula: obeying the words of the Torah leads to blessing, while breaking the laws brings about punishment. As long as there is fruitful cooperation between the parties, there is no reason to discuss termination of the connection. However, anytime one party deviates from a mutual understanding that had been reached, the foundations of the agreement are undermined. This new reality has implications for both sides.

Initially, the injured party seeks to implement the clauses in the agreement that are intended to enforce its continued existence. If the remedies for a breach achieve their purpose, the agreement returns to its normal track. But what happens if the punished party continues in his ways? For what reason should the injured party continue to uphold an agreement that gives him nothing other than continuous punitive measures and lawsuits against the other party? It stands to reason that at some point, if one of the parties constantly rebuffs his obligations, the agreement will lose meaning. De facto, even the party that had been fulfilling the agreement is released from his obligation.[5]

On the other side, continuous absorption of punitive measures, imposed because of constant violation of the agreement, is liable to build a certain defense mechanism for the violating party. He acknowledges that he sinned, and for that he deserved to be punished. But since he accepted the punishment, he may assume that the imposition of extended punitive measures brought even the injured party to the understanding that the agreement between them was voided de facto – in which case, he is now "officially" released from it. This defense mechanism may even persuade him that he acquired the annulment of the agreement justly, since he fulfilled his part of the agreement, which anticipated the possibility of its breach and the punishment that would come in the wake of such a breach.

"And That Which Comes Into Your Mind Shall Not Be At All"

It seems that this line of thought is not purely theoretical. The prophet Yechezkel describes in this way what happened in hard times with respect to the development of the relationship between God and His people (Yechezkel 20:1-44):

Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? cause them to know the abominations of their fathers… and I made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up My hand to them, saying: I am the Lord your God… But they rebelled against Me, and would not hearken to Me; they did not every man cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them, to spend My anger upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I wrought for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known to them, so as to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt… For when I had brought them into the land, which I lifted up My hand to give unto them, then they saw every high hill, and every thick tree, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering… and that which comes into your mind shall not be at all; in that you say: We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.[6] As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be king over youand I will bring you out from the peoples, and will gather you out of the countries wherein you are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for My name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O you house of Israel, says the Lord God. 

This seems to be the vision to which the Torah alludes in our parasha. Let us read the verses again in this light:

Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods.

The argument brought here in the name of the people is their sense that in light of the many evils and troubles that befell them, due to their breach of the agreement, the de facto situation has stabilized. Even God understands that the agreement is hopeless and has removed Himself from the people, who are now released from the covenant.[7] Theoretically, such a course of thought is possible, but our parasha comes precisely to declare in advance that, despite Israel's repeated violations, God will never withdraw from His covenant. Obviously, God will not reward them for their behavior, but rather He will hide His face. However, He declares in advance that this will not justify their claim: the covenant will remain in force forever. In this spirit, let us examine the song, to which the Torah pointed for gaining understanding of the relationship between God and His people in times of crisis (32:19-39):

And the Lord saw, and spurned, because of the provoking of His sons and His daughters. And He said: I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness. They have roused Me to jealousy with a no-god; they have provoked Me with their vanities; and I will rouse them to jealousy with a no-people; I will provoke them with a vile nation. For a fire is kindled in My nostril, and burns to the depths of the nether-world, and devours the earth with her produce, and sets ablaze the foundations of the mountains. I will heap evils upon them; I will spend My arrows upon them… I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men… For the Lord will judge His people, and repent Himself for His servants; when He sees that their stay is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large. And it is said: Where are their gods, the rock in whom they trusted; Who would eat the fat of their sacrifices, and drink the wine of their drink-offering? let him rise up and help you, let him be your protection. See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me; I kill, and I make alive; I have wounded, and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand. 

"For I Know Their Inclination How They Do Even Now"

Over the course of the description in Devarim 31, a unique expression jumps out at us, which takes us back to ancient times (v. 21):

Then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their inclination [yitzro] how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.

Man's inclination [yetzer] is mentioned in the Torah in only two other places:

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every inclination [yetzer] of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And the Lord said: I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repents Me that I have made them. But Noach found grace in the eyes of the Lord. (Bereishit 6:5-8) 

And Noach built an altar to the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the sweet savor; and the Lord said in His heart: I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the inclination [yetzer] of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Bereishit 8:20-21) 

We can easily discern that these two instances complement each other. The Torah states that an initial review of human history indicates that man's inclination leads him down an evil path. This insight paves the way toward destruction of humanity, with Noach the only exception. After the flood, even though God's perception of man's character does not change, He accepts it as a fact of existing reality. Thus the Torah concludes that God made a conscious decision to continue to accompany humanity, despite man's problematic nature.

Our parasha deals not with humanity as a whole, but with the nation that was chosen to lead it. However, the unique wording the Torah uses here is intended to refer us to God's conclusion regarding the creation of man, and His consideration of human nature. In my opinion, this is the key verse in our section and the song that comes in its wake. God declares to future generations, even before the covenant goes into effect, that He is aware from the outset of the character of the other party and that He will not be surprised by the breach of the covenant. The "business" calculation spelled out in detail above does not apply here. The reward and punishment should not be read as a condition of the connection, since we are not dealing with a contract but with a prediction.

This is how we connect to the fundamental decision made by the Creator when He created His world. The nature of the chosen people, because they are humans, involves falls that will lead to curses and that would even justify their annihilation. But all this notwithstanding, and perhaps precisely because of this, God chose His people with their limitations, because He believes in them – that even though they will fall, they will also rise up again and justify His selection. This is the book of the generations of man and Israel.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 


[1] See the shiur of Prof. Y. Grossman on the VBM website: "Ha-Meser ha-Kaful shel Parashat Vayelekh," and the shiur of Rav Sabato there: "Vayelekh – Pereidato shel Manhig."

[2] Unless indicated otherwise, biblical references are to the book of Devarim chapter 31.

[3] The lack of a "happy ending" in the account of the calamity is one of the striking differences between the calamity described in the "covenant of Moav" and that described in the "covenant of Chorev" at the end of the book of Vayikra (26:33-46):  "And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste… And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary to Me. I also will walk contrary to them, and bring them into the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised heart be humbled, and they then be paid the punishment of their iniquity; then will I remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember; and I will remember the land… And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord." This difference was one of the bases of the disagreement between the Abravanel and the Ramban regarding the attribution of the various calamities to the events of Jewish history. The Ramban argues (Vayikra 26:16) that the happy ending is found precisely in Vayikra, which describes the destruction of the First Temple; in that case, after a short period, Israel returned to their land. We, however, are still living in the exile that came in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, and therefore in Devarim, there is no mention of a deliverance immediately upon the conclusion of the account of the destruction.

[4] The Ramban reads the verse differently, and identifies in it the buds of a process of repentance: "And the meaning of: 'So that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?' is not full confession, as in 'And they shall confess their iniquity.' But it is doubt and regret, that they will regret their trespass, and recognize that they are guilty." This approach raises the question of why God responds with the hiding of His face. See Ramban in the continuation of his comment, and the Abravanel for additional explanations.

[5]  In section 2 of the Laws of Contracts that apply in the State of Israel (Remedies for Breach of Contract -1970), the following section appears: "Where a contract has been broken, the injured party is entitled to claim its enforcement or to rescind the contract, and in addition to or in lieu of one of the said remedies he is entitled to compensation, all as provided in this Law."

[6] In previous chapters, the people are twice quoted as interpreting the reality of their lives with the words: "The Lord has forsaken the land" (Yechezkel 8:12; 9:9).

[7] The Midrash explicitly places this claim in the mouths of Israel: "As Israel asked Yechezkel, as it is stated: 'Then came certain of the elders of Israel to me, and sat before me' (Yechezkel 14:1). They said: Yechezkel, a slave who has been sold by his master, does he not leave his domain? He said to them: Yes. They said to him: Since God has sold us to the nations of the world, we have left his domain" (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Shelach 750, and elsewhere).

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!