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Nitsavim - Generations

Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20

“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God Adonai and with those who are not with us here this day.” - Deuteronomy 29:13-14

 

P’shat – Explanation

These words that open parashat Nitsavim capture the essence of what it means for us to be part of an historic religious civilization. To assert that the covenant with God was made not merely with those present at the time, but also “with those who are not with us here this day,” is to acknowledge that we are part of an evolving religious civilization whose essential spiritual and ethical commitments continue to hold sway to this day.

This passage also introduces the related notion that all Jews are connected by a common spiritual thread. Our souls are part of a continuous chain of spiritual being that stretches back to the moment of revelation at Mt. Sinai and forward again into tomorrow. The great commentator Rashi explains in the Talmud, Shavuot 39a, “‘Those who are not with us here’ includes future generations to come.” In Midrash Tanhuma, Nitzavim 3, it says in the name of Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani, “The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says 'with us today' and not 'standing' with us today."

The idea that our ancestors standing at Mt. Sinai entered into the covenant with God not only for themselves but for all future generations evoked the mystical Jewish conception that all Jewish souls through the ages stood together at Mt. Sinai. This mystic notion includes the presence of all future converts to Judaism, who are said to be Jewish souls accidently born into non-Jewish bodies finding their way back to their spiritual home. 

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“Since the Jewish people is indispensable to the Jews as a human person, and since it has always given him the feeling of being in rapport with God, identification with the Jewish people provides Jewish religion with the indispensable dimension of the mystical.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan taught that throughout the thousands of years of Jewish history, the one common thread holding us together as a religious civilization has always been the Jewish people as a community. It is our familial bond, a tribal sense of feeling part of the same extended family across globe and space, wherever Jews have lived, and from one Jewish generation to the next. This bond is continuously revived whenever one generation passes on Jewish tradition to the next. 

Intrinsically Kaplan’s idea is the same as that articulated here in Deuteronomy: God’s covenant continues to renew with every succeeding generation.

Yes, even Mordecai Kaplan, a predominantly ultra-rationalist thinker who believed most Jewish mystical teachings were flights of fancy, identified the linkage of our personal fates and identities with the Jewish people as a whole across the generations as a powerful form of mysticism that helps to keep Judaism itself alive. 

 

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Standing Together in Tragedy and Trauma

I was startled out of my sleep at 6:15 AM that Tuesday, September 11 by a phone call from my daughter, Gable who was living just blocks away from the World Trade Center in New York.  “Oh my God,” she cried into the phone, “I’ve just witnessed the most horrible scene of my life." 

What could I say to my twenty-one-year-old daughter as she described watching human beings jump 110 stories to their deaths?  What could I tell her as she cried with the pain of all the suffering around her, the iconic towers decimated and all the people covered with dust and ash and soot unable to comprehend the magnitude of the trauma? Thousands of innocent lives had vanished in an instant of unleashed evil.  The world we knew had changed forever.

 I ached to find some magic words to make it better, but I couldn’t.  The best I could do was cry with her, giving her comfort and support all the while knowing that the 3,000 miles that separated us might well have been the other side of the world.  We were almost overwhelmed by the realization of the essential fragility of life.

 The Israelites likely felt a similar sense of fragility. For them it was undoubtedly a persistent, daily fear that at any moment the hostile desert might swallow them whole. By the time they stood at the banks of the Jordan River preparing to cross into the Promised Land, they had endured forty years of desert wanderings, the murder of their women and children by Amalek, wars with numerous armies, revolts from within, plagues, poisonous snakes, earthquakes that had swallowed up thousands, and now the imminent death of the only leader they had ever known. 

Even so, God held out the promise of ultimate renewal and redemption, reminding the people the sacred covenant between God and Israel was not a one-time commitment, but rather an eternal promise stretching throughout all time. 

“The entire world is a very narrow bridge,” wrote Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “and the essential thing above all is not to fear.” 

As an ancient people whose civilization spans thousands of years, we have known immense loss and sorrow. Perhaps the lessons we have learned from our collective traumas give us the strength and resolve to meet each new tragedy. They tried to destroy us in Egypt, but we walked away from our enslavement with heads held high.  They bound and tossed us into the fires of the auto de fé during the Spanish Inquisition, and we rescued our Torah scrolls and started again elsewhere throughout the world.  They stripped us naked and forced us into the chambers of death in concentration camps throughout Europe, and we created the reborn State of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and thrived beyond our wildest imaginations throughout the free world.

It takes moral strength to go on in the midst of tragedy, Nitsavim tells us, and linked from one generation to the other, that is the path we have always chosen.

 

 

Mon, September 26 2022 1 Tishrei 5783