Parashah Ponderings

Choose to Be There on That Day

Parashat Nitzavim / פרשת נצבים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day; That he may establish you today for a people to himself, and that he may be to you a God, as he has said to you, and as he has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day…  Deuteronomy 29:9-14

In this week’s parashah, Moses’ gathers all of Israel, from the most esteemed leaders to the lowliest laborers, in order for them to formally enter into the covenant with God. This is the same covenant (with minor variations) which God had made with their parents and grandparents 40 years earlier at Mt. Sinai. The Sinai generation had uttered those famous words of consent: “All that God has said, we will do and obey.” (Exodus 24:7). But it was also the Sinai generation that, because they sent spies into Canaan to see if they’d be able to conquer the people there, was doomed to wander for 40 years in the wilderness and to die out before entering the land that God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who now stand before Moses “this day” have followed the faith of their forebears for four decades but have never actually given their consent to the covenant. Now, standing on the border of what will become Eretz Yisrael, the 2nd and 3rd generations after the exodus from Egypt enter into the covenant with “heaven and earth” as witnesses.

In his weekly commentary on the parashah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, explains that through this ceremony Moses “ensures that this and the next  generation  and  all  future  generations  of Israel will  be bound  by  it.  He  wanted  no-one  to  be  able  to  say,  ‘G-d made  a  covenant  with  my  ancestors  but  not  with  me.  I did  not  give  my  consent.  I  was  not  there.  I  am  not bound.’  That  is  why  Moses  says:  It  is  not  with  you alone  that  I  am  making  this  sworn  covenant,  but  with whoever  is  standing  here  with  us  today  before  the  Lord our  G-d,  and  with  whoever  is  not  here  with  us  today” (Deut. 29:13-14).

The question is, however, why does Moses address not only those standing before him but also “him who is not here with us this day”? After all, can the unborn hear him and agree to the terms of the covenant with all its laws and statutes, blessings and curses? As Rabbi Sacks himself says, “There can be no obligation without consent.” In what sense, then, does Moses oblige future generations to remain faithful to the covenant?

Rabbi Sacks finds an answer to this question later in the parashah: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live” (30:19). Choose. Those present, despite being told they are part of the covenant, are given a choice to abide by its terms or not. The former will bring blessings upon them; the latter, curses. All will go well if the people embrace God and the mitzvot. Should they turn away from God, however, misery will befall them.

If the present generation has a choice to make, so do subsequent generations. Rabbi Sacks points out that Jews have made the choice to be faithful to the covenant over and over again throughout their history. During the Inquisition, many Jews converted to Christianity but still remained faithful and practiced their Judaism secretly. In Nazi extermination camps, Jews reaffirmed their faith despite the horrors they witnessed that might have caused them to abandon God and Judaism altogether. In our own day, by and large, we face no obstacles internally or externally to jettisoning our Jewish heritage and going incognito, perhaps embracing another faith tradition. And, yet, most Jews still choose to identify as descendants of those who entered the Promised Land with Joshua, even if they don’t practice ritually or allow Torah-based values to inform their behaviors.

How were our ancestors able to choose Judaism under the Inquisition or during the Shoah? How are we able to make that choice? By watching and learning from those who come before them. When Moses says he is speaking not only to those present in his day but to those yet to be born, we ought not to take him literally. Rather, the message for his generation is that it will be their responsibility to ensure that their successors learn mitzvot and are given the opportunity to choose either a life of meaning or a life devoid of meaning, a life of connection to God and humanity or a life of utter loneliness. It is toward the former that we, like Moses’s listeners and all the generations before us, should aspire to lead our children and our children’s children.

We are the inheritors of a magnificent tradition, one with the potential to illumine our lives and repair the world. Each day we choose to embrace that tradition, we give life to the souls of the men and women who so lovingly passed the tradition onto us throughout the millennia. We give life to the people who stood with Moses on “that day.” When our lives become intertwined with theirs, we can say that we, too, were sworn into the covenant on “that day.” It is incumbent upon us to ensure that future generations stand with Moses as well.

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