Parashat Nitzavim 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, Moses speaks to the Israelites of the covenant between them and God. He emphasizes that every person in their society is a party to the covenant. Interestingly and perhaps incredibly, the non-Israelites who live among the Israelites are included as part of the covenant. We read repeatedly in the Torah that there is to be one law for the Israelite and the foreigner who lives among the Israelites, but usually it is not as clear that those foreigners are actually party to the covenant with God. But they are.

Moses says, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 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 Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).

A covenant usually goes in two directions—there are rights and responsibilities on both sides. In the case of the covenant with God in our Torah portion, our job, as the spiritual descendants of the Israelites, is to live as God instructs us to live. For those following the Reform tradition of Judaism, this means adhering to the ethical laws of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. In return, we’re promised that God will continue to be our God, and will protect us.

The inclusiveness of this covenant — the fact that it is directed at all the people, those present and those not present, and people at every level and in every role in the society, including foreigners — feels very modern and current. The covenant itself, though, feels like an outdated theology. If we behave as we should, all will go well for us? Reward and punishment from an overseeing God? I’m sure all of us can think of examples of times when people did the right thing and were harmed anyway, and people who behaved horribly but seem to be rewarded.

And yet, we still talk about the covenant. We still read about it in the Torah. Perhaps a way that we can understand the covenant for ourselves today is that we do indeed promise to be ethical and moral, following the instruction of our tradition for how to be so. In return we have the reward of community and a relationship with God, in whatever way we understand that word “God.”

Furthermore, this week’s Torah portion tells us that we are all in this together. Jews and non-Jews, all of us are in this world together. This week, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the United Nations General Assembly about global climate change, which will, sooner or later, affect all of us. She spoke passionately and bluntly, with the desperation of someone who only has words to offer, who knows that the listeners might or might not act on her words. I imagine that Moses may have sounded similar, exhorting the people in Deuteronomy to follow God, knowing that he cannot control whether they will or not.

We as humans divide ourselves into families, tribes, races, and in the last 200 or so years, nationalities. It was happening in the time of the Torah, and it is happening today. It seems to be human nature to always have people who are “us” and people who are “other.” People who are “other” are less valuable than people who are “us.”

The Torah and the rabbinic tradition sometimes push against this. There is a midrash that says that we all descended from one person, Adam, so that no one could say their lineage is better than anyone else’s (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). And here in Nitzavim, everyone, Jew and non-Jew, elder and child, regardless of gender or social status, is included in the covenant.

This is a time in history when we really must put aside our differences and make radical change in the face of global climate change. All of us who are “standing here today” have a responsibility to those who are “not standing with us today” because they haven’t been born yet, those who will have no choice but to inherit the world we leave for them.

We may not believe that God rewards us with blessings and punishes us with curses, but there are times when we create our own blessings and curses as the consequences of our actions and inactions. Let us “choose life” for all humanity. That is our responsibility in our covenant with the universe. May we have the strength and resolve to do so.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.