We Were All There, At the Mountain

September 15th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When the Torah says, “You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29.9), the nature of the occasion and the constituency of the audience are both a little ambiguous. Is it a new covenant ceremony as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land? Is it a farewell lecture of Moses—reminding them of their national history? Is it a rehashing of the revelation at Mount Sinai? Is it a kind of initiation ceremony for the new generation, born in the wilderness after Mount Sinai? Or is it a ritual re-creation of the revelation intended to remind everyone of the covenant with God that is still in effect?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to speak about the power of ritual re-creations in religion, referring to them as peak experiences domesticated. An important event happened long ago, but we want to feel its power and influence today. To accomplish this, we construct a ritual—some stories, some holy texts, some ritual process involving movement, chanting, special clothing, and even some food. They all revolve around the central purpose of putting us back in that moment of greatness or inspiration or insight.

This might have been a moment of great emotion for Moses and the Children of Israel—what, with Moses’ retirement coming up and the entrance to the Promised Land about to begin. There is every reason to see this grand gathering as a transition ceremony concluding one chapter of the national life and looking forward to the next. And yet, as the portion has been handed down for so many centuries, it has taken on the feeling of a re-creation-ritual in which these new Israelites (the ones born in the desert) and all the Israelites of subsequent generations see themselves as standing at another mountain, Mount Sinai, and hearing the voice of the Eternal as we entered God’s covenant.

When we read this passage in synagogue this weekend, this peak experience domesticated will certainly be on the agenda. And, when we read it again on Yom Kippur, we can again see ourselves at the mountain, hearing and responding to the Lord God.

As for the constituency of the audience, the text gives us both specificity and ambiguity: 
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your tribal captains, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the 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 join in an oath which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that the Eternal may establish you today as a holy people, and that the Lord may be to you a God, as has been said to you, and as has been sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29.9-14)

The listing is pretty comprehensive, but, at the very end, we have the cryptic, “It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”

Who exactly are “those who are not here with us this day?” The logical answer is that some people didn’t make it out of the camp that morning. With 600,000 or so people, you figure someone is ill, or taking care of the ill, or in a state of ritual impurity, or on guard duty, etc. The point here is that everyone in the community is included, whether he or she is physically present for the covenant ceremony.

However, our Sages picked up on this phrase and saw in it a much more mystical possibility. They taught that every Jew of every generation was present at Mount Sinai. Every Jew of every time was standing right there, hearing the voice of God and accepting our holy mission.

This would mean that our ritual recreation of this peak experience is really a matter of remembering something we all already know—because we were all there. So, rather than it being like a historical re-enactment (like the yearly Washington crossing the Delaware River event), this is more like a couple playing a tape of their wedding and feeling that special love again—or someone playing a tape of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and once again feeling the closeness to God from that special, special day.  

We were all there, so we can all, at some level, remember.

But, what about the converts—all those individuals who have chosen Judaism and joined our people in the intervening centuries? The answer is that they were there, too. All Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai. All Jewish souls heard the thunder of God’s voice. All Jewish souls of all time were there to affirm the covenant with the Most High.

In other words, those who have chosen to convert to our faith already had Jewish souls. They were just born to non-Jewish families. As much as they loved and respected their birth families, their Jewish souls yearned to be with other Jews, and they gradually found their way into the Jewish community, spiritually settling into the religious home that their souls were seeking all along.

Thus do we stand together in this day, alongside all those people with whom we stood so long ago. Sinai is not just a story; it is a seminal moment of our lives—a pivotal and holy moment of our souls’ development. We have been somewhere special. We have witnessed God’s Presence ourselves. And, we are called to respond to this awesome memory in the way that we live our lives.