We will be reading Deut 30:1-15 in the synagogue this week.
Moses continues his speech to the Israelites, telling them that all the people are standing that day before God. They will enter into the covenant where God would establish Israel as God’s people and would be their God, as promised to them and to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The covenant was made with those who were standing there that day and ALSO with those who were not there that day. Moses reminds the Israelites that they had lived in the land of Egypt, had travelled through many nations and seen the gods of the other nations. Moses tells them that they may think of following these other gods. In this case, God would be angry, blotting out their names. He tells them that future generations will see the devastation and ask why God had done that to the land. They shall be told it is because the people had forsaken the Covenant of God, but had served other Gods and so had been removed from the land. Moses then reminds the people that the Torah belongs to people and is not inaccessible for them but is very close. Moses tells them that he is setting before them life and prosperity and death and adversity. He commands them to love God and to keep God’s commandments so that they might be blessed in the land. He calls heaven and earth to witness the choice put before them and exhorts the Israelites to choose life.
Parshah Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. In part that is fortuitous – a wrinkle of the calendrical cycle. in part though there is a deeper connection, because it reminds us that all the people will indeed be standing together in the presence of God during the yamim noraim; and in part, I think the reason is because the importance of this speech of Moses – it is one that is critical for the people – do not forget where you come from, what you are called to do, what you will have to give an account of. And do not forget that you are one people.
The unity of the Jewish people, standing together, all voices being heard from the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest – choose any spectrum you like – ALL the Jewish people are, says Moses, “Nitzavim, Culchem” – standing present, all of us. We are all part of the whole; each of us has a role to play and a gift to give. Tradition teaches that everyone who will ever become a Jew also stood at Sinai – we too were there, accepting the covenant and agreeing to its obligations.
So the unity of the Jewish people is paramount, in prayer during the yamim noraim all of us should be there. However sinful we may feel ourselves (or others) to be, our liturgy calls us all together to pray in one community. And the unity of the Jewish people is paramount in memory and mission – in how we fulfil what we are called to do. Tragically it seems to me that this unity is unravelling in so many ways. Many Jews feel less and less bound to the community, less willing to give the time or the thought that is needed to help them and the community thrive. And many Jews feel out of sorts with the community – be it defined as the establishment, the synagogue, the State of Israel, the traditions, the rituals, the beliefs or behaviours of other Jews.
I think we all have reservations about what it means to be one people. We all wonder why, in hard pressed times, we are expected to give so much of ourselves. We look at other sectors of the community and shake our heads. I for one find the hareidisation of Judaism horrifying, others of course will find the feminising of Judaism equally odd. In Israel there is a growing gulf between the dati’im (observant of all the legalities) and the hilonim (secular Jews whose identity is Israeli) The issue is, how to we still live with each other – how do we find the common ground of the covenant made at Sinai and stand, all of us together? How to we make a bridge or a series of connections that allow us to stay one people without all having to bend to one common denominator, but instead allow our diversity to be one of the values we cherish? Nitzvavim reminds us we are all there – from the leaders of the community to the most menial, men, women and children. Diversity is built into our unity. Now we need to work at building unity from our diversity.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild