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Parshat Nitzavim/VaYelekh

September 8, 2009

By Sanford Olshansky

When I was 22 years old, I had stopped practicing Judaism. My attendance at Shabbat services had dwindled to zero. Not so unusual – lots of Jews attend synagogue only on the High Holidays plus an occasional bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. But that year, I didn’t even attend High Holiday services – I worked – and it didn’t feel right.

Later that year I read The Source, by James Michener. As I became engrossed in it, I realized that it was speaking to me about a miracle – the miracle of Jewish survival. It reminded me that for over 3,000 years our continuous chain of tradition and belief has survived conquest, exile and dispersion, the rise and fall of empires and persecution which is unparalleled
in human history. It helped me to realize that I’m an heir to a unique spiritual heritage. If I hadn’t read The Source, I might not be writing this.

What does this have to do with Parashat Nitzavim? The Torah says: Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifney Adonai Eloheihem – “You stand today, all of you, before Adonai your God . . . to enter into the covenant . . . which Adonai . . . is concluding with you . . .” The Torah includes future generations as well as Jews by choice. It says: “I make this covenant . . . both with those who are standing here . . . and with those who are not . . . here today.” In other words, our Biblical ancestors’ covenant included us. How do we feel about that – we who were born into the covenant, but had no say? Do we have a choice? Can we write ourselves out of the covenant?

Today, in the US, every Jew is a “Jew by choice.” All religion in America is religion by choice. Whoever makes a serious commitment to Judaism and accepts the fate of the Jewish people is included in the covenant. But if we stray too far from Judaism, as I did, are we written out of the covenant? What if we don’t believe in God? What if we don’t know whether God exists? What if we haven’t been to services in years?

Parashat Nitzavim predicts that the Jewish people would go astray but says that we can always come back: V’shavta ad Adonai Elohekha v’shamata b’kolo . . . “You will return to Adonai your God and listen to God’s voice…and Adonai will . . . take you back in love.” Rabbi Harvey Fields says this teaches us that “God waits for the . . . return of every person. (We) can always (do) teshuvah. (We can) always return to God.”[1]

One of the great Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Franz Rosenzweig, grew up in a barely-observant family that was more German than Jewish. At age 27, after Rosh Hashanah, he told his mother that he intended to convert to Christianity, but wanted to do so, like the early Christians, from Judaism. She replied angrily that she would have him
turned away from their local synagogue on Yom Kippur, so he took a train to Berlin and attended services there. Something that Rosenzweig experienced that Yom Kippur inspired him to embrace Judaism. He taught that how we move toward a fuller Jewish life depends on where we start. We should each do as much as we can.

Many of us have had a strained relationship with the covenant, even if we didn’t opt out of it, as Franz Rosenzweig nearly did. Perhaps we were turned off by a bad experience with some aspect of Jewish ritual or education. Maybe we had doubts somewhere along the way. The message of Parashat Nitzavim is that it’s never too late.

You might ask: What kind of Jew could I hope to be if I don’t observe the mitzvot now? What if I don’t want a radical change in my lifestyle? My answer is: Start with something! Resolve to do one more Jewish activity this year than you did last year:

Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was once asked by his students for the definition of a good Jew. Rabbi Finkelstein replied that a good Jew is one who wants to be a better Jew[2] – not a Jew conforming to any specific standard of belief or observance – just a Jew who is trying to be a better Jew.

What we do and how we live is our choice. Parashat Nitzavim says: ha-hayim v’ha-mavet natati lifanekha ha-brakha v’ha-kelallah
uvaharta bahayim
“. . . I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life . . . ” As we approach the New Year of 5770, let us, as individuals and as a community, choose to be better Jews than we were in 5769 and may that choice lead all of us to a richer, fuller life.

[1] Harvey
Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times
(New York, 1993), Vol. 3, pp. 168-169

[2] Sidney. Greenberg &
Jonathan D. Levine, eds., Siddur Hadash

(Bridgeport, CT, 2000), p. 150


Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at AJR and serves as rabbinic intern and acting Hebrew School Director at Temple Beth Rishon, in Wyckoff, New Jersey.