Nitzavim: We Stand Together

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.

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Parashat Nitzavim: Not Beyond Reach

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 29: 11-14)

“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another.  They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.

This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember.  After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”

When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the  congregation.  I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy.  He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded.  I recited the Shema with the congregation.  Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion.  Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head:  no, not too heavy.  Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms  began to  quiver.  My back began to complain.  I shifted the scroll slightly.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded.  He went on teaching.

Finally I reached my limit.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.”  He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy.  No one can hold it alone.”  And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly.  It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.

When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson.  I do not have to carry the Torah alone.  Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.

L’shanah Tovah!