Perhaps my favorite song of all time is You’ll Never Walk Alone written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein for the Broadway musical Carousel in 1945. I know it from the 1956 film version. This moving anthem to empathy stresses that no matter what disasters befall an individual, one can find solace and support from others, allowing the sufferer to ‘walk on through the rain, walk on through the storm’. The concept is truly inspiring. But is it always true? Our Torah reading this week weighs in on this weighty topic.
This week’s parsha begins by declaring: Today you are all standing (NITZAVM, perhaps: ‘standing strong’; Robert Alter: ‘stationed’) before God, your Lord (Devarim 29:9). The verse then lists all the segments of the population represented in this assembly, from the highest echelons of power to the lowliest segments of society. This seems to be a statement demanding solidarity within communities. A powerful message to us all.
However, a few verses later we find the following pronouncement written in the singular: You are thus being brought into the covenant of God your Lord, and its dread oath, which God your Lord is to seal with you (singular) today (verse 11). The next verse is also in the singular but that may be referencing the entire nation as a collective. From then on, it’s all ATEM, or ‘you’ in the plural.
What’s going on? The Kli Yakar, Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619), suggests: This is a clear-cut indication that the essence of the BRIT (covenant) is for the sake of mutual concern (AREIVUT) for one another. Through the aspect of AREIVUT, all of Israel become as one individual, and allows us to perform mitzvot on behalf of each other. We are guarantors for one another. It’s similar to an individual who has a wound in one limb, the entire body suffers, so it is with the nation when one member abrogates the BRIT, all feel the negative impact.
The great commentary then explains that the principle of AREIVUT is best learned through the BRIT being entered into by the Jews, because it is that binding covenant with God which transforms the separate individuals of the nation into one body politic. We become like a unified flock with the acceptance of this national compact with our Creator and Shepherd. This BRIT institutionalizes empathy.
This concept of shared responsibility and destiny is very powerful, but I’d like to add another approach. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh (Rav Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) asks a simple question: Why does the verse attach the term B’ALATO (with dread oath) to the acceptance of the Covenant? The holy rabbi answers that it’s critical to understand that our connection to the Torah isn’t through a Divine decree. It’s through a solemn pledge on our part to keep the Covenant. So, if a Jew lapses on a certain mitzva, that individual isn’t just breaking that single precept. Rather that person is breaking the solemn pledge of conformity to the whole Torah package. Abrogation of that universal commitment brings the consequences of the ‘dread oath’.
I’d like to humbly add an idea to the profound words of these Torah giants. This Brit unites us as a people, and binds us eternally and irrevocably to the fulfillment of our commitment to God. This is amazingly important. I think that there’s another factor which must be considered. Such a definitional pledge can’t be entered into en mass. This level of commitment must be personally attested to by every member of the collective. Therefore, our verse describing the responsibility to this Brit must be recorded in the singular. Because every Jew must personally and individually vouchsafe it.
The Midrashim, similarly, enshrine this concept in its literary body of material. There are any number of these rabbinic sources which point out that every Jewish soul stood at Mt Sinai. This week’s parsha, as well, informs us that ‘But it is not only with you that I am making this covenant and this dread oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and also with those who are not here with us, this day (verses 13-14).
That’s the key: Every one of us must make that personal commitment to the national pact with God. It is that bond agreed to by us all, which makes us a community, flock, family. Then we can confidently declare: Walk on, walk on with faith in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone. Faith and the BRIT.