By Henry J Morgen, 8 September 2018

Shabbat shalom. It turns out that 30 years ago I shared my thoughts with the Library Minyan on this very parshah. After reviewing it, I’d say it’s still pretty good; however, I’d like to address something different today. First, though, I’ll paraphrase something that still holds true, and that is that it has been and continues to be an honor to be able to daven here. I especially appreciate the high level of learning and commitment to community that I’ve come to love and admire.

This morning I’d like to focus on how this parshah fits into our liturgical cycle. If you’ve been tracking the way our sages mapped the torah portions to the weeks in our year you’ll notice that Devarim always occurs just before Tishah B’Av. The seven parshi’ot of consolation always conclude with this parshah on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. If you think of the book of Devarim as Moses’ closing remarks to the people of Israel, then it’s a classic example of “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em.” Today’s parshah, Nitzavim, is the “Tell ’em what you told ’em” part. It’s the final words of wisdom our rabbis wanted us to hear just before we flip the calendar year and focus on renewing our commitments to ourselves, our families and our community to be our best selves. The balance of the book of Devarim is sort of transition from Moses’ leadership to Joshua, and Moses’ epitaph.

So, let’s look at this parshah a little more closely. It opens with an incredibly powerful paragraph that we actually got to read today, even though we’re on the middle third of a triennial cycle, because we got to read the whole parshah:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord 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 waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He 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 Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.[1]

There are some really important points in this opening paragraph: Everyone, male and female, young and old, high status and low status, part of the tribe and outsiders, and those that were present and their progeny are fully included in this covenant. This is a contract that is totally egalitarian for all that will reciprocate and be God’s people.

In the next few paragraphs God warns us to be faithful or He’ll be very angry with us. But, in the end, if we return to Him, He will take us back and bless us. I also want us to focus on the last part. Again, I’m going to quote extensively in English to point out a couple more things:

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 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?” 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?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord your God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them.[2]

Last week we read the blessings and curses associated with failing to adhere to the covenant. This week there’s an emphasis on how easy it actually is to adhere to the covenant. We’re being asked to acknowledge that Adonai, Sovereign of the Universe, has essentially committed to be a loving Parent to us. In exchange we must act with due appreciation and observe appropriate ethical and social norms. If we do that, all will go well for us; otherwise, we’ll be breaking this covenant and God will not be held to uphold it either.

So, are we individually going to be rewarded or punished for “bad behavior?” If you look at the Hebrew, it appears that we’re being addressed individually, but we’re also being addressed as the collective body. Therefore, I believe that we are individually responsible yet collectively rewarded or punished. Is that just? I can’t say, but it appears to be how the universe works. You can see this all around us all the time. Bad things happen to good people and visa-versa. Some governments terrorize their citizens to maintain power. Others war with each other displacing millions of innocent bystanders in the process. Our oceans are filling with plastic, and the temperature of our planet is rising thanks to collective lack of care for our environment. Here, in Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of people are living with food insecurity and/or lack of affordable housing. What is our personal response to these communal and global problems?

We are in a season of reflection—both personal and collective. We will be spending a lot of time in the next few weeks focused on t’filah, or internal contemplation. What have we said or done when it would have been better to refrain from action? When would action have been more important that refraining from acting or speaking? What social and ethical norms should we focus on more acutely in the coming year? What should we do collectively to ensure continuity where it is waning or drive to change where we have veered off the proper path?

We call ourselves a “light unto the nations.” If we want to keep that light on and use it for good, we’ll need to work towards a time when the rest of mankind realizes that this covenant is available to them, too, if they act with due appreciation to God for our planet and observe appropriate ethical and social norms. Let us spend part of our time during these High Holidays reflecting on how we personally and collectively can start to be the change we want to see. Shabbat shalom. L’shanah tovah.

[1] Translation from P.379: The Torah—The Five Books of Moses ©1962 Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia

[2] Translation from Pp.381-382: ibid.

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