September 30th: Nitzavim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
The beginning of our Torah portion is reminiscent of Rosh Hashanah’s social and spiritual context: everybody shows up. It is a gathering of the tribe.
“Atem nitzavim kulchem: You are standing here 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…” (Deuteronomy 29.9-10)
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner thinks in these terms—a gathering of the tribe—in a chapter entitled Wool Pants (in his The Book of Miracles, a book of spiritual mindfulness meditations which we give to each of our B’nai Mitzvah as a gift from the congregation). Thinking back to his childhood in Detroit, he remembers his family rushing to get to temple on Rosh Hashanah early so they could get a seat in the main sanctuary, “the big room.” He remembers the immensity of the gathering—that “every Jew in Michigan was there”—and how important it was for him “to be seen” and to make a good impression. A particular concern was his mother’s focus on the creases in his freshly pressed wool dress pants, but, even as a child, young Lawrence realized that there was something deeper at play.
There is something essentially Jewish about showing up and being seen as part of our extended tribe. When we’re at the congregation where we belong, we certainly feel it, but many of us feel it more acutely when we’re visiting our hometown synagogue—the congregation from which we came—or when we’re strangers in a totally different part of the world and all of a sudden feel connected because “we’re all Jewish”—all part of our holy tribal community.
Historical note: this tribal notion is not only ancient. As the 80 and 90 year olds will remember, MOT / Members of the Tribe was a hip way to describe other young Jews back in the 1940s.
Most commentaries on the Deuteronomy passage speak to its expansiveness. Everyone is included. Some speak to the inclusion of women. Other speak to the inclusion of foreigners and low status people—“hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Some Midrashim point to the cryptic comment a few lines later: “It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath, but with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here this day.” The simple meaning is that the covenant includes both those who are in the assembly and those who are back at camp—sick, tending the sick, taking care of babies, standing guard. The Rabbis of the Midrash, however, get really expansive and say that “those who are not here this day” refers to Jews of every subsequent generation—throughout time! Thus were you and I also “there that day to enter into the covenant with the Lord our God!”
Another angle approaching this notion of gathering is to notice a kind of democratization. Yes, the leaders are mentioned first, but everyone else is included in the covenant and in the discussion—for Moses is delivering this reminiscence to the entire assembly as part of his farewell lectures (Deuteronomy). We are all included in the covenant, and that means we are all active agents in the continuing story of the Jewish people.
This is important historically because those who were in leadership then were replaced in subsequent generations by people without noble family backgrounds. For manycenturies, the leadership was in the hands of a royal dynasty, the Line of King David, but later, the leadership passed to the Levites and then later the Levitical clan called the Sons of Aaron (the kohanim/priests). Both kings and priests were often counseled and sometimes even supplanted by prophets, people unconnected to the power structure but chosen by God for important communications. Still later, the kohanim were totally replaced by the Rabbis, scholars who arose through a Torah-oriented meritocracy. An example is Hillel, who, though his followers claimed he was a descendent of King David, was a poor Babylonian who scraped together his tuition money for the academy in Jerusalem he later headed. Over the 3500-4000 years of our people’s existence, our leadership and wisdom have come from a wide swath of the Jewish people, and thus everyone’s view is a part of the Jewish conversation.
This is important today because every Jew who chooses to be Jewish and participates in Jewish life is a decider about the future of Judaism. There are leaders and public intellectuals, but their ideas are only valid if people follow their suggestions and make Jewish life a living entity.
And so, this Torah portion invites us all to show up at synagogue for the High Holy Days. Be seen by the tribe. Be included in the people of Israel. Be an active participant in the ancient and continuing Jewish story.