By Joel Elkins, September 24, 2022
I don’t usually put much stock in serendipity, but sometimes the universe conspires to try to convince me otherwise.
A while back I was given the assignment to give the dvar torah today on parshat Nitzavim. That same day, I had picked up from the library the book for my book club. I debated whether to start in on the book or to get a head start on the drash. I flipped a mental coin and the book won.
So I opened to the first page of Jonathan Sacks’ “A Letter in the Scroll” which begins with the story of a 15th Century Spanish rabbi named Isaac ben Moses Arama who was – I kid you not — preparing his sermon on parshat Nitzavim. Good one, universe. You’ve got my attention.So Rabbi Arama is sitting in his study and he fixates on the opening passage, where Moses gathers all the Children of Israel and says to them:
Atem Nitzavim, you are all standing here today to enter into the covenant of your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant not just with those standing here today, but also with those who are not with us.
Rabbi Arama then asks the same question that countless commentators have asked before him: It just said everyone was standing there — men, women, children, tribal elders all the way down to resident aliens, woodchoppers and water bearers. Who then are “those who are not here”? And he comes to the same conclusion that many others, including Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra had come to before: this must be referring to future generations. The Talmud calls it “mushba ve-omed mi-Sinai” (already foresworn at Sinai). From the moment we exit our mother’s womb, for better or for worse, we are born into that covenant.
Later in his book, Rabbi Sacks asserts that the idea of a covenant between a people and its God is unique among the world’s religions. Ancient polytheistic religions believed that men were essentially serfs serving whatever god controlled the region. Christianity believes that man is tainted by original sin which only devotion to God can remove. Islam believes that man is called to absolute submission to God’s will. Judaism alone believes in a covenant, an ancient contract between the people and God.
But Rabbi Arama asks how future generations can be held to a contract that they did not agree to. The traditional answer is that the souls of all future Jews were present at that time, but they were not included in the “those standing here today” for the simple reason that they could not physically stand.
I’d like to offer a slightly different answer.
A little later on is the parsha’s most famous line:
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ
I have put before you life and death
blessing and curse
וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
Generally translated: “then choose life—so that you and your offspring will live”
Based on this translation, the whole process smacks of coercion. Follow my commandments and you will live and be blessed, do otherwise and you will be cursed and die. Like that famous midrash about God asking the people to accept the commandments while physically holding Mt. Sinai over their heads. Being bound to a contract which was forced upon you under pain of death is no way to go through life.
But perhaps there is another, more uplifting, reading. But for that, I will need to talk a little Hebrew grammar. In the Torah, there is something called vav ha-hipuch, a vav before a verb which changes a future tense verb to past and a past tense verb to future. Thus, yomar means “he will say.” Va-yomer means “he said.” Similarly, in the verse I just read bacharta means “you (singular) chose”; so u-vacharta – “you will choose.” But since Moshe is making a plea not a prediction, most translations change it to the cohortative “choose” — choose life.
But consider this: what if this is not an example of vav ha-hipuch, but rather a plain vav ha-chibur, the simple conjunction “and.” Then the verse would read “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you chose life.”
In the traditional reading, life and death, and blessing and curse are seen as alternatives, choose (a) or (b). But in this alternative reading, as I will explain, they can be seen as two sides to the same coin.
In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a choice. You can abstain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and stay forever in the garden with all your needs provided for, or you may partake of the fruit of the tree and be banished from the garden, live on earth, till the soil by the sweat of your brow and give birth in pain. As we all know, they chose life.
I like to think of this not as a creation story but as a parable, that every soul is given this choice: you can remain an ephemeral, lifeless being and exist forever in the cosmos, or you can choose to live on earth, with all its ups and downs, its blessings and curses, life and eventual death. And of all the untold number of souls given this choice, only a small minority chose to take the red pill, choosing life with all its highs and lows, freedoms and restrictions, adventure and mortality. By very definition, each of us here is one of those bold few.
Perhaps this is what God, through his servant Moshe, was saying to the people then and, through our reading of this parsha each year, to us today. You knew the consequences of the choice I set before you and you chose life on this earth. But with that great power comes great responsibility. The price of experiencing this corporeal life is the occasional misfortune and heartache. Sure, follow my commandments and I will lessen those for you. But they won’t go away. They are, after all, a part of life.
In Jewish literature and liturgy, God is variously described as a master and we his servants, or as a king and we his subjects, or as a father and we his children. But according to Rabbi Sacks, the metaphor most embraced by the prophets is that of husband and wife, a covenantal relationship created and maintained by mutual commitment.
Married couples make a lifetime commitment to marry “for better or for worse, till death do they part.” But every now and then they may find it helpful to renew those vows. We have that same opportunity. Every year about this time, we participate in an intense 10-day couples’ retreat. We admit our mistakes from the previous year and re-commit to trying to do better this coming year. We share with our partner what we expect from them and listen to their needs of us.
Starting tomorrow evening, we will all be Nitzavim, standing before God in that annual couples’ retreat. As you beat your chest and try your hardest to be remorseful, imagine God saying to you: I set before you all the terms of the contract, life and death, blessings and curses. And with full knowledge of the consequences, you signed on the dotted line, you gave your informed consent, and you got life. Now, keep up your end of the bargain, and live it, fully and honorably.