Image: The menorah in the Knesset garden in Jerusalem. (Possi66/Wikimedia)
The beginning of Parashat Nitzavim is thrilling. Moses is speaking to the community, and he makes it clear that he is speaking to everyone:
You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—
to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day. — Deuteronomy 29:9-14.
First of all, the word translated “stand” in the first line means much more than “stand.” It means established, or rooted: that all the people gathered together are determined to enter into this covenant with God. Moreover, they stand as equals, from the highest to the lowest members of society, each of them is established as a full member of the People of Israel, a sharer in what would become, over the coming centuries, the great project of Judaism.
Secondly, all of them are named as children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: there is no distinction here between men and women, or adults and children, and there is no distinction between the DNA-bearing descendants of Abraham and those who came along as part of the “mixed multitude” from Egypt:
And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle. — Exodus 12:37-38
And then, just as the reader is tempted to think, “Wow, that’s inclusive!” there’s yet another dimension, the dimension of time: “those who are with us this day… and those who are not with us this day.” So that all the Israelites who have ever been, all the way back to Abraham, and all the Hebrews who perished in Egypt, and all the Jews who would be born in the years to come, right down to this very day, were all standing together at this moment. Thus it is an eternal moment, a cosmic moment, in which we all stand together as the People of Israel.
It gives me the chills.
Whenever I am tempted to be discouraged by all the fighting among Jews, I think of this passage. Perhaps we can agree on almost nothing but by golly, Moses looked at us – looks at us, in this cosmic moment, and he says to us, “You, ALL of you, are established today before the Eternal your God.”
We may scrap and fuss and and quarrel among ourselves — oh, how I wish we did not! — but we are all Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, past, present and future. Nothing changes that, not the Egyptians, not the Babylonians, not the Romans, not the Spanish Inquisition, not Hitler, and certainly not the modern-day creeps who threaten us. And even among ourselves, when we squabble about who’s the most authentic, who’s the most Jewish: before this passage in Deuteronomy, it all fades away.
We stand. We are established. We are rooted in the truth of who we are: and no one, absolutely no one, can diminish that, or take it away.