Brit HaAganot: The Story of the Super Bowls

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Parshat Mishpatim ends with a peculiar 11-verse story colloquially referred to as “Brit HaAganot.” In this story, Moshe is commanded to go up to God, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. Moshe ascends, returns, and tells Bnei Yisrael “kol divrei Hashem,” to which they respond “Naaseh.” Moshe then writes down “kol divrei Hashem.” He makes an altar and 12 “Matzeivot,” one for each tribe, and has sacrifices brought on the altars. He throws half the blood from these sacrifices on the altar. He then reads Bnei Yisrael the “Sefer HaBrit,” to which they respond “Naaseh viNishmah.” He takes the rest of the blood and throws it on Bnei Yisrael, exclaiming that “this is the blood of the covenant between them and God over these devarim.” Then Moshe, Aharon, Nadan, Avihu and the Elders go up to God, where they see God, and God does not harm them. They eat and drink.

This is an unusual story, presented without context or explanation. The commentators ask: Did this story happen before or after Matan Torah? Why can the non-Moshe leaders go up to God at the end but not at the beginning? Why do Bnei Yisrael respond to being told “kol divrei Hashem” by saying “Nishma,” but to Moshe reading them the “Sefer HaBrit” by saying “Naaseh viNishmah?”

The best way to answer these specific questions involves focusing on a broader question: what is the purpose or message of this narrative?

Most commentators explain that this is the narrative of God establishing a covenant between God-self and Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi Chanoch Waxman of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes that the narrative ends with two classic tropes of covenant stories, the appearance of God to people and the sharing of a meal. But what is the content of this covenant? We are not given any details from “kol divrei Hashem!” Abarbanel writes that this is a covenant built around the Torah, which is established through the dual actions of Moshe reading the “Sefer HaBrit” for Bnei Yisrael and the throwing of the blood partly on the Mizbeach, representing God, and partly on the Matzeivot, representing the nation. Chizkuni adds that the splitting of the blood evokes the Brit Bein-HaBetarim, a covenant between God and Avraham. Rashi explains that this is a sort of conversion ritual for Bnei Yisrael, as the Talmud derives from here that conversion requires Hartzaat Damim, a sacrificial blood ritual (when the Temple is standing).

According to Rashi, this narrative actually happened before Matan Torah, and is out of place in the Torah. The standard covenant answer similarly supposes that this narrative is placed out of order in the Torah, as it actually describes a part of Matan Torah itself or an event that occurred directly after Matan Torah.

Ramban, however, kidarko bakodesh, explains that this narrative is appropriately chronologically placed in the Torah, and happened well after Matan Torah. I believe that Ramban’s reading is compelling, and that this narrative is not about God establishing a covenant with Bnei Yisrael or of them engaging in some sort of conversion ritual.

The purpose of this narrative is to illustrate the transition and dispersion of power within Bnei Yisrael after Matan Torah. Before Matan Torah, Moshe was the sole leader, but after this narrative, his leadership is dispersed among other members of Bnei Yisrael, namely Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders.

It is clear at first glance that this narrative revolves around the actions of Moshe. The word Moshe is the milah manchah (leitmotif) of this 11-verse narrative, appearing 7 times. Yet it is not immediately clear why Moshe is central here.

The message is gleaned through investigating the structure of this narrative. The unit has almost a perfect chiastic structure, but with each section containing a twist to demonstrate the shifting of power from Moshe to the other leaders.

  1. At the outset, Moshe is told to go up to God alone, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. At the end of, , they all go up to God and see God. 
  2. Moshe is described by name as teaching the people the law and writing the Sefer HaBrit, but when he subsequently reads the Sefer HaBrit, his name is conspicuously absent.
  3. Moshe is in charge of bringing the sacrifices, but at the end of the narrative, all the leaders eat and drink together.
  4. In the first part of the narrative, Moshe alone throws the blood on the altar, signifying his special relationship with God, while in the second part of the narrative Moshe throws the blood on the nation, and in fact not necessarily on all of them; Ibn Ezra writes that Moshe only threw the blood on the Elders, as they represented the entire nation.

(י) ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר:

יא) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו ויחזו את האלהים

(א) ואל משה אמר עלה אל יקוק אתה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל והשתחויתם מרחק:

(ט) ויעל משה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל:

(ב) ונגש משה לבדו אל יקוק והם לא יגשו והעם לא יעלו עמו:

(ז) ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר דבר יקוק נעשה ונשמע:

(ג) ויבא משה ויספר לעם את כל דברי יקוק ואת כל המשפטים ויען כל העם קול אחד ויאמרו כל הדברים אשר דבר יקוק נעשה: (ד) ויכתב משה את כל דברי יקוק…

ויאכלו וישתו:

…ויבן מזבח תחת ההר ושתים עשרה מצבה לשנים עשר שבטי ישראל:

(ה) וישלח את נערי בני ישראל ויעלו עלת ויזבחו זבחים שלמים ליקוק פרים:

(ח) ויקח משה את הדם ויזרק על העם ויאמר הנה דם הברית אשר כרת יקוק עמכם על כל הדברים האלה:

(ו) ויקח משה חצי הדם וישם באגנת וחצי הדם זרק על המזבח:

There is still one unanswered question from among those raised at the beginning of this dvar torah: how do we explain the change in Bnei Yisrael’s response from “Naaseh” when they were told of “Kol Divrei Hashem,” to “Naaseh ViNishma” when they are read the “Sefer HaBrit?”

I think that our understanding of the purpose of the narrative can shed new light unto this question. Traditionally, the word “ViNishma” is interpreted here to refer to the word of God, “we will heed the word of God.” But I think that it’s more appropriately interpreted to refer here to the other leaders of Bnei Yisrael. The people have not changed their attitude to the word of God – they said “Naaseh” to that before, and they say “Naaseh” to that again. But now, they are recognizing that they must also heed not only Moshe relaying the word of God, but also the teachings and leadership of Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders, and to this they are saying “ViNishma.”

Ezra Newman (SBM 2013) is currently in his third year at Harvard Law School.



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