Committing to the Covenant “Today”
Repetition of Words and Phrases in Biblical Texts (Leitwörter)
How can we fruitfully read biblical texts? One approach, often taken by contemporary scholars, views the texts as originating in different sources and traditions, while another sees them as made out of whole cloth. Both have their merits. But beyond the debates, which have become more nuanced with time, one might also suggest a technique of reading which looks for common threads and unifying patterns, however they may have arisen.
I refer to focusing on repeating words and phrases in a text. Time and again, biblical Hebrew uses repetition of key words to suggest major motifs and themes, a practice which undoubtedly points to a society in which the texts were recited in some setting.
The classic modern statement of this technique was put forth by Martin Buber in a number of pivotal prewar essays, where he coined the term Leitwort, “leading word.” Such a word may appear in the guise of different forms of a Hebrew root, and may occur in both smaller and larger textual units.
A parade example brought by Buber is the repetition of the root r-‘-h, “see,” in the Abraham stories, which has the effect of binding the different narrative pieces together and suggests that Abraham is the first of the prophetic figures in the Bible.
Ha-Yom as a Leitwort
While Deuteronomy 29–30, like many passages in the book, contains memorable moments (such as “It is not in heaven,” 30:4), there is one term that resounds throughout these texts (five times in 29:9-17 and seven times in 30:1-19), even when it does not always seem rhetorically necessary: ha-yom, “today.” I will cite a few of these, to convey the flavor of these passages:
דברים כט:ט אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָ-ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם...
Deut 29:9 You are stationed today, all of you, in the presence of YHWH your God...
כט:יב לְמַעַן הָקִים אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם..
29:12 in order that he may establish you today for him as a people...
ל:ב … כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם...
30:2 …exactly as I command you today...
ל:ח …וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.
30:8 …and observe all his commandments that I command you today.
ל:טו רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם...
30:15 See, I set before you today…
ל:יט הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ...
30:19 I call-to-witness against you today the heavens and the earth…
This word, which barely appears in God’s or Moses’s speeches to the Israelites in the Sinai account of Exod 19-24, initially sets apart the “covenant in the Plains of Moab” recounted in Deuteronomy and makes of it something new, even while relating it to the Sinai covenant (with, for instance, a somewhat repeated version of the Ten Commandments).
Moses’s speeches here would seem to focus the present moment, addressing the assembled Israelites. It is like something one would find at the end of a contract or agreement (“Signed this __ day of ____”). Yet the incessant repetition of the word “today” at times feels like it protests too much. Can we find another reason for the text’s harping on ha-yom in these chapters?
Classical and Modern Interpreters
Curiously, many of the classical commentators are not terribly helpful in explaining its repeated use. Rashi, citing a tradition that appears in b. Sanhedrin 110b, links the word to a specific day, that of Moses’s death—hence the speech’s urgency. Midrash Ha-Gadol, the great medieval collection of Rabbinic and other traditions, when commenting on v. 11 connects it to the promise of a future day and a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:30. And the eighteenth-century Sephardic MeAm Lo’ez explains that ha-yom represents the Israelites’ last chance to establish the covenant as an entire people, before they scatter as they go off to the war of conquest. But none of these interpretations really addresses the rhetorical function of the repeated word.
Some moderns as well largely ignore ha-yom. In W. Gunther Plaut’s widely used synagogue Torah volume, for instance, the repetition is duly noted, but is merely characterized as giving Moses’s speech “rising emphasis.” Moshe Weinfeld, a pre-eminent interpreter of Deuteronomy, can only note how it serves to highlight the “solemn moment” in which the Israelites find themselves.
Ha-Yom as an Implied Timelessness
The repetition of ha-yom in Deuteronomy may, in fact, point elsewhere. Recent scholars such as Bernard Levinson and Ronald Clements have picked up on an intriguing aspect of “today” in our text. They point out that, paradoxically, the refrain of ha-yom may not only indicate a present moment in the context in these chapters—the Israelites gathered to hear Moses’s last words—but also the audience’s “today,” whenever that may be, independent of the time and place presented in Deuteronomy.
As so often in the Bible, an original context, if we are able to identify one, quickly gives way to a timeless one, especially if it is heard as rhetorically powerful. Thus the audience experiencing the ha-yom in these chapters may include a seventh-century BCE one, when some early form of the book was likely first promulgated; during the Persian period, when many scholars believe that the Torah in its more or less familiar form appeared; but also, in a crucial sense, all subsequent Jewish generations.
In other words: the experience of hearing the repeated “todays” in essence transforms the text’s later audiences into Moses’s addressees. I am suggesting that it is difficult to be present at the reciting of these words without feeling somehow addressed.
This virtual dissolution of time echoes the rabbinic interpretation of the Revelation at Sinai, the idea that all Jews were mystically present at that moment. As the text (29:13-14) has it,
דברים כט:יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת. כט:יד כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם.
Deut 29:13 Not with you, you-alone do I cut this covenant and this oath, 29:14 but with the one who is here, standing with us today, in the presence of YHWH our God, and with the one who is not here with us today.
So the one who is “here” in the Plains of Moab does not take precedence over the one who is not here; in a sense, they both are “stationed” (29:9) together, in full hearing of the speech of Moses.
Earlier in the book, in 5:3, a parallel point is made:
דברים ה:ג לֹא אֶת אֲבֹתֵינוּ כָּרַת יְ־הוָה אֶת הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת כִּי אִתָּנוּ אֲנַחְנוּ אֵלֶּה פֹה הַיּוֹם כֻּלָּנוּ חַיִּים.
Deut 5:3 Not with our fathers did YHWH cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today,
all of us [who are] alive!
“All of us [who are] alive” is in fact echoed every week when the Torah is taken out of the Ark, with the words of Deut 4:4.
דברים ד:ד וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם.
Deut 4:4 But you, the ones clinging to YHWH your God, are alive, all of you, today!
The words have been re-contextualized, taken out of an earlier setting, yet they still partake of the sense that Deuteronomy wishes to create with its “new covenant.” The eternally renewed “today” seeks to connect the generations and bind them together in a common destiny.
That sense of klal Yisrael, so sadly lacking in the current historical environment, is at the very heart of the text of Deuteronomy, especially in the beginning of chapter 29, which describes the attentive crowd listening to Moses as one that includes elders and officials, women and children, foreigners and menial laborers (29:9-10). Such a gathering is portrayed again at the other end of biblical literature, in Nehemiah 8, with its audience of “men, women, and all those who could understand” (v. 3).
In a small way, then, these kinds of scenes are reenacted whenever the Torah is read aloud. “Today” challenges all hearers of the text to make the moment their own. The book of Deuteronomy, the great example of the Teaching (Torah) made new, thus begins the Jewish process, as old as the Bible itself, of rehearing and rethinking the tradition.
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Prof. Everett Fox is the Allen M. Glick professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Fox is the translator of The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995), and The Early Prophets (Schocken Books, 2014).
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