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Parashat Nitzavim 5778

September 6, 2018
A D’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11)

Week after week we wrestle with the Torah, often trying to figure out where the women are, how to deal with this God who seems often punishing and violent, and how to think about a hierarchical system of worship involving sacrifice of animals that is really alien to the way we worship now. For me, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is easier to approach than many others. It is both inclusive and equitable. There is still talk of punishment by God, but there is also reassurance of reconciliation with God.

The inclusivity of this Torah portion is right at the beginning, when Moses, who is now nearing the end of his final instructions to the Israelites, lists the various groups who are present, who are receiving the instruction. Those with authority are there: tribal heads, elders, and officials; and the men are there. All of this we would expect. But Moses continues, including those who we might not think were included: children, women, non-Israelites who live among them and do the menial labor. Moses says that the covenant being made with God is being made with all of them. Not only that, though, Moses includes in the covenant also those who are not there today, thereby reaching down the generations all the way to us. This is a radical inclusivity, and there are no lines drawn between the people. The covenant is for all of them equally, and for us too, as much as for them.

That’s one way in which this Torah portion is not only inclusive, but equitable. Elsewhere in the Torah portion Moses emphasizes (in what is possibly my favorite passage in the whole Torah) that the Torah is for everyone. It is not just the province of priests, or especially intelligent people, or men. He says:

“This Instruction…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 and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:11-14).

Of course, together with this wonderful egalitarianism, there is also great responsibility that Moses is placing squarely on each one of us. He’s saying, “Don’t expect someone else to spoon-feed the Torah to you and tell you what it means. You have to grab onto it, learn, and figure it out for yourself. Because you know what? Not only do you have the ability to do that, it’s yours. It’s right in front of you, accessible to you whenever you want.” It’s not much of a stretch from there to infer the idea that the Torah has its own meaning for each of us, and because that might not be the same meaning it has for someone else, each of us must search out its meaning for ourselves—no one else can tell us exactly what it is.

This does not mean that there’s no place for teachers, learning with others, or community—we all know that. It just means that we are all obligated to immerse ourselves in the text, challenge it, and wrestle with it for ourselves.

And what if we don’t? What if we wander away? Moses tells us in the portion that God will never forgive those who turn to idol worship, and that they will be punished. That much we heard last week, far more graphically than we have it this week. But just a little later in this short Torah portion, we read that we can always come back, and that when we do, God will “take [us] back in love” (Deut. 30:3). This is so fitting for this time of year. We can do teshuvah, which means “return,” and which also means “repent.” God is waiting for us to do it, and will embrace us and not reject us even if we have for a time rejected God. It is a reassuring message that God does care about us and love us, and that there is mercy and forgiveness available to us when we ask for it.

As we head into the Days of Awe this week, may we all feel the power and responsibility of grasping the Torah that is so close to us; may we know before whom we stand; and may we ask for and receive forgiveness and love.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY.