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Torah Sparks

September 15, 2012 – 28 Elul 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 (Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 (Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

As parashat Nitzavim opens, the entire Israelite nation is present at the ratification of the covenant with God: Israel is to be God’s people, the Lord Israel’s God. The covenant is accepted as binding on “those who are not with us here this day” – that is, it is binding also on future generations. Severe sanctions are pronounced against any who would contemplate excluding themselves from the covenanted community be redressed by God directly; overt violations will be dealt with by the community, whose members would keep each other accountable for their collective covenantal responsibility.

A counterpoint to Moses’ dire hortatory is provided in the prospect of divine forgiveness and redemption, favor and restoration, both spiritual and material, that awaits those Israelites – and the nation as whole – who, although erring, return to God and the covenantal mission.

The Torah portion ends with the assurance that the terms of God’s instruction are accessible. No intercessor is required, and fidelity to God’s plan and covenant is a matter of free will. Israel is asked to “choose life” through submission to the divine will, to embrace the covenant, to choose the path to God’s blessing.

Theme #1: “Decisions are Made by Those who Show Up”

“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.” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)

Study: Derash

“The reference is to future generations: they too are committed to the covenant, even though they had no voice in concluding it. This concept is essential to the continuity of Torah and of the people who are its bearers… That the present can and does commit the future to some extent is unquestionable. We are who we are because of our ancestors and of their achievements and failures.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut)

“In the language of the Bible the word berit (covenant – JHP) becomes a characteristically religious word, one of these words in which the idea of great inter-relatedness, the great unity of all, of mystery and ordered certainty seeks to express itself. The God-given order was to find expression in this term… The Old Aramaic translation of the Bible translated berit as ka’yama [that which is established], indicating that which is above all change, above all that comes and goes.” (Rabbi Leo Baeck)

“The great covenant is made not only with ‘et-asher yeshno poh,’ those here today, but also with ‘et-asher eynenu poh,’ those who are not here today—all future generations, all of us. We are to be the witnesses of Oneness in this world, and we are being challenged constantly to exchange eynenu poh, not here, for yeshno poh, here, in attendance, recipients of the ever-flowing Word. And beyond that, to exchange yeshno po for hineni—fully present, alive, conscious, awake in every iota of our beings: b’khol levavkha, uv’khol nafsh’kha uv’khol m’odekha, with all of your heart and mind, with your whole soul, and with every resource you possess. Holding nothing back!” (Rabbi Diane Elliot)

“How do we know that all future generations of Jews as well as converts to Judaism also entered into the Covenant at Sinai? From the verse: ‘…with those who are not with us here this day.’” (Talmud, Shevuot 39A)

Questions for Discussion

What essential, covenantal elements of Jewish life and law and tradition are, as Rabbi Baeck asserts, “above all change, above all that comes and goes.” What are our essential Jewish aspirations for our children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants? What steps might we take to assure the future we want for our families and congregations?

Rabbi Elliot observes that – in the pursuit of spiritual meaning and fulfillment – we are not always fully “here, in attendance… fully present, alive.” What mechanisms does Jewish tradition provide to help assure that we remain among the “fully present”?

What programmatic, theological, and halachic implications are inherent in the traditional assertion that converts to Judaism, too, entered the covenant at Sinai… that, in common parlance, they actually stood at Sinai with the rest of the Jewish People throughout the generations?

How are you the product of your family history? How is your religious community the product of its early history? Is the influence of our forbears always a positive force? To what extent are individuals – and communities – free to effect a dramatic change in course, direction, and character?

How have decisions we have made as Jews… as communities… as a Conservative Movement… already shaped the future… who our descendants will be, and how they will experience the covenant?

Theme #2: “A Few Choice Words”

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Study: Derash

“Why do we need this verse to give us a reason for choosing the good? Does it not suffice to know that the result of choosing evil is death? …This verse is intended to tell us what kind of good we are to choose; namely, a good that is powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on our children and students and make them also want to choose the good.” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

“Some of us remember the couplet: ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ Today we might reply, ‘How odd of Jews to refuse to choose.’” (Rabbi Julian B. Feibelman)

“What’s it mean to choose life? I believe, part of what it means to choose life is to not expect too much from people; to learn to accept people for who they are, to respond to them with understanding and compassion. Forgive them for what they are not, and try to appreciate them for who they are… Choosing life means forgiving ourselves, especially for things we’re not responsible for. Okay, but what about the stuff we are responsible for? What about our failings, our weaknesses, our sins of various kinds? Of course, we must do everything we can to right our wrongs, to pay our debts, to set what’s crooked straight. Nevertheless, at some point, when we’ve done the best we can do, the only life affirming response that we can have is to have compassion on ourselves to recognize our humanness and accept our weaknesses. Ultimately, choosing life means learning to love ourselves in spite of our failings.” (Rabbi George Gittleman)

“To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man is compelled to choose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he might have the lesser.” (Plato)

“Of two evils, choose neither.” (Rev. Charles Spurgeon)

“Two weevils crept from the crumbs.
'You see those weevils, Stephen?' said Jack solemnly.
‘I do.'
‘Which would you choose?'
‘There is not a scrap of difference... They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.'
‘But suppose you had to choose?'
‘Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.'
‘There I have you,' cried Jack. 'You are bit - you are completely dished. Don't you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!’”
(Patrick O'Brian, The Fortune of War)

Questions for Discussion

Do you agree with Plato that “to prefer evil over good is not in human nature”? Don’t many individuals, groups, nations willfully choose evil? Or do they simply miscalculate what is good? How would you, similarly, answer Rabbi Feinstein’s rhetorical question: “Why do we need this verse to give us a reason for choosing the good?”

Imagine Plato and Rev. Spurgeon (a 19th Century British Particular Baptist preacher) in conversation. Is choosing the lesser of two evils a morally commendable or valid course? What might Rabbi Feinstein add to this conversation; what is the difference between good and “a good that is powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on our children and students and make them also want to choose the good.”

Explain Rabbi Gittleman’s thesis: How does compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others constitute fulfillment of the commandment to “Choose Life”? Is this perspective characteristically Jewish?

How does Jewish tradition affirm the creed articulated in our verse: “Choose Life”? Is this religious mandate more or less challenging in the 21st Century? Where is this principle at greatest peril?

How are we to understand Rabbi Feibelman’s warning today? What are Jews today refusing to choose, to do, to understand?

Historic Note

In Parashat Nitzavim, read on September 15, 2012, the Jewish People is assured: “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…’” On September 15, 1904, Wilbur Wright made his first airplane flight!

Halachah L’Maaseh

The Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah is unique since it is the Sabbath before a new moon that the blessing for the new moon is not recited. Some authorities explain that the usual prayer functions as a reminder that the new month is about to begin; no such announcement is required for Rosh Hashanah, which the Jewish community greets with anticipation (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 417, Mishnah Berurah, Shaar Hatziyun 2). Rabbi Isaac Klein (Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 179, citing Isaac Tyrnau, Sefer Ha-Minhagim, p. 32) offers a basis in Jewish folklore for this liturgical omission: “In order to confuse Satan… Satan is waiting for Rosh Hashanah in order to speak ill of the children of Israel before the throne of judgment. The omission of the prayer for the new month will mislead him about the date, and thus he will miss his chance.”

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