Rashbam: Keeping the Covenant (Vaetchanan)

In Parshat Vaetchanan, Moses relates that God has chosen the Israelites to enter into Canaan and dispossess the people there. Deut. 7:7-8 emphasizes that it is not due to the people’s current greatness (either in numbers or anything else) but due to God’s promise to the ancestors (Abraham, Sarah, etc.). Deut. 7:9 underscores this quality of God: “who keeps his covenant and his benevolence to those who love him and to those who keep his commandments to the thousandth generation.”

Could it be that one good ancestor should ensure a thousand generations of blessed descendants? The verse also suggests that those who love God and follow the mitzvot also merit God’s benevolence (chesed). How to reconcile these two approaches in the verse, the theology of inheritance vs. the theology of merit? Rashbam, perhaps aware of human experience that seems more complicated than the theology of inheritance, completely does away with it.

Deuteronomy 7:9 KNOW THAT THE LORD YOUR GOD…[KEEPS HIS COVENANT AND HIS (promise of) BENEVOLENCE UNTIL THE THOUSANDTH GENERATION]: In other words, lest you say, “Since God made an oath to our forefathers to give us this land, why do we have to observe God’s commandments? Surely God will do what was promised, no matter what [we do].”

Against such thinking I [Moses] answer: If you do not observe God’s commandments, you will not inherit the land. [And yet, even if God denies you entry into the land,] God is not reneging on God’s oath. For this is God’s way: GOD KEEPS (i.e. God waits [to fulfill]) GOD’S COVENANT AND GOD’S [promise of] BENEVOLENCE that God swore to the forefathers; [God would wait] for that generation that would consist of THOSE WHO LOVE GOD AND KEEP GOD’S COMMANDMENTS.

And this is the same idea that Moses expressed in the verse below when he concluded this theme (vs. 12), “And if you do obey these rules…then the Lord your God will ‘keep’ for you the covenant and the [promise God made of] benevolence.” [The phrase ushmor lecha God will keep for you,” means that] God will not wait for a thousand generations, God will keep it [i.e., fulfill it] for you. (Translation adapted from Martin Lockshin)

I love Rashbam’s twist – the inheritance is preserved for Israelites for (at least) a thousand generations, but it comes with terms in order to fully receive it. The Israelites must live up to the code of conduct, the ethical, ritual, spiritual aspirations of Torah.

Martin Lockshin notes that “God has never obligated Himself to rush to fulfill His covenant. He never promised to fulfill the covenant for any specific generation. The Israelites are still obligated to observe God’s commandments. If and only if they do that, God will fulfill His promises. Otherwise He will “keep” the covenant, i.e., He will put it on hold until an appropriate moment” (Lockshin, Rashbam on Deuteronomy, p. 66).

The audacity of Rashbam in interpreting God’s “keeping” (shomeir habrit) as keeping in reserve, in potential, while simultaneously interpreting the Israelite’s “keeping” (shomrei mitzvotav) as active observance. These are not the same meanings of literally the same word. God’s keeping implies a blessing that only actualizes if we actually make mitzvot a practiced part of our lives.

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.