Our Expansive and Purposeful Community

September 27th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There’s a bit of a contextual problem in this week’s Torah portion. We begin with what seems to be an important ceremony: “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, that the Eternal may establish you today as a holy people, and that the Lord may be to you a God.”. (Deuteronomy 29.9-12) It seems important, but it is not clear where and when this gathering takes place.

The passage comes in the middle of Deuteronomy, in one of Moses’ farewell lectures just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, but there is no further description of such a covenantal event. The big event is at Mount Sinai, some forty-one years ago. Could this passage be a retelling of that dramatic story? Or could Tradition be conflating the Revelation at Mount Sinai and Moses’ farewell lectures—seeing all forty-one years in the wilderness as one prolonged Matan Torah event in which God makes a covenant with us and trains us?

In any event, the most curious part of the passage comes in the next verse and expands the constituency of the covenantal congregation. In verse 13, we read, “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 are these people who are “not here with us this day?”  The original meaning was probably that the covenant includes both those out at the mountain and those back at camp—the sick and their care-givers, those watching the animals or on guard, etc. (It is sort of like the way we count the minyan on Saturday mornings. If we only have ten people, and one or two take a bathroom break, we figure that, as long as they are still in the building, they are “present.”)

However, our mystics see the verse as much more expansive. They say that all the generations of Israel—past, present, and future—were included at Mount Sinai, affirming our relationship with God and entering the covenant. Even though the covenantal ceremony happened some 3200 years ago, we were all there!

What are we to make of such a notion?

A first insight is what my teacher, Dr. Alvin Reines, called Birth Dogma in Judaism. We are born Jewish and obligated to Jewish beliefs by virtue of our births. Though we have welcoming rituals for children (Brit Milah for boys and Baby Naming for girls), the ceremonies do not make the children Jewish. According to traditional Halachah, the children are already Jewish—are born into a chain of Jewish ancestry/membership that goes back to the covenant we entered at Mount Sinai. Such origin of status is in contradistinction to our Christian friends who are not born Christian but who must be made Christian through the sacrament of Christening or Baptism. This observation may seem a little pedantic—because children born and raised in Christian families are inevitably and de facto Christian, but it is a theological distinction that is important in Christian theology.

For the last 2000 years, traditional Halachah has held that Jewish status is passed down automatically only when a baby’s mother is Jewish. In the 1980s, the Reform movement took a different position based on a sense of egalitarianism and on the practical aspects of raising a child religiously. Our position is that that the Jewishness of either mother or father can be passed down to a child if the child is raised Jewishly and then observes Judaism.

Was every Jewish soul that will ever be born present that day, receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai? This notion may be difficult to see as a historical or scientific truth, but it is not presented as either science or history. It is a mystical teaching that speaks of trans-generational spiritual experience and commitment. Our Jewish identities do not only exist alone and individually—or just in this time. An essential aspect of Judaism is the community—hence the value we find in congregations, in other Jewish organizations, and in Jewish history. We began as a sacred congregation, and we continue that way, joined to each other and all the generations.

Our passage also speaks to the importance and inclusion of gerim/converts for, according to the Rabbis, the souls of all converts were there at Sinai, too. As they have been part of our spiritual community from the very beginning, their incorporation into Judaism is part of our communal fate. Perhaps this is why so many gerim say that they felt Jewish before they even knew what the feeling was called. For so many, gerut/conversion is really just a formal recognition of the long-time state of their souls.

I find great meaning in these mystical teachings for they inspire me to feel my own soul as part of this timeless community, committed to God and to God’s ongoing sacred mission.

But there’s more: In the next chapter, there is a passage that speaks of the natural proclivity we Jews have for Torah—for the way of thinking and living taught by Torah. In Deuteronomy 30.11-14, we read, “This commandment which I command you this day is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go across the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

The relationship with the Eternal that we entered back there at Mount Sinai has engraved upon our sensibilities an innate desire for holiness. The Torah’s ambience and sensibility seems right to us, and we find that we are naturally suited to live holy lives. Though we may differ in the ways we interpret or observe religious traditions, Jewishness is part of our souls and our innermost yearnings.  

As Dr. Reines would put it, Jewish Identity is, for us Jews, an Ontal Symbol, a sign of ultimate meaningfulness. We have been touched by the Infinite, and we continue to bask in its glow.