Divrei Torah

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September 11, 2020 - Parashat Nitzavim - Vayeilekh 5780

Tomorrow’s Giants On Our Shoulders
A D’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilekh
By Rabbi David Markus

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we have, much that we are becoming, are harvests of trees our ancestors planted. We inherit their shalshelet – their spiritual and practical causation both wise and unwise, healthy and not – along with what they received from their ancestry. Legacy courses through us as history’s heartbeat. We and how we live our lives are the next beat, the eternal river’s next bend on its endless flow.

So of course, we stand on yesterday’s shoulders. But how about tomorrow’s giants on our shoulders? If we really felt the future on our shoulders, would we live differently?

Torah’s Nitzavim-Vayeilekh asks that question directly. The Covenant is made with “everyone standing here today,” and also “everyone not standing here today” (Deut. 29:13-14). “Everyone not standing here today” are future generations (Rashi, Deut. 29:14; Ramban, Deut. 29:14) – but even to a mystic like Ibn Ezra, not their “unborn spirits” (Ibn Ezra, Deut. 29:14). Rather, the future is pure potential. On our shoulders is a tomorrow of infinite possibility, which stands equal with us in receiving the Covenant.

Yet most moderns are wired to focus on the here and now – ourselves, our people, our needs, our wants, our time. Spiritual wisdom about a radical holy now of presence and awareness – a go-to Torah for me, too – suspends focus on futurity. It’s a comfortable re-frame we all need sometimes, especially in this societal moment of anxiety that can seem to shade the sacred behind veils of tumult and confusion.

But this societal moment also is supremely consequential: few times in history have been so pivotal. Our choices right now can melt ice caps to flood countries, spread covid-19 to kill countless thousands, ignite racial hatred and hobble democracy itself. Our choices right now portend instant curses or instant blessings that, by their nature, can drive planetary history for generations. Literally, right now, future generations stand on us, pressing on our shoulders, staking their claim to the Covenant and us with it.

Tradition imagined that future generations can merit to receive the Covenant’s blessings only if they honor Torah as we did to merit our own blessings (Sforno, Deut. 29:14). Not to knock the giant shoulders under my feet, but I want far better for tomorrow’s giants on my shoulders. They don’t deserve today’s “multi-demics” of fatal contagion, toxic politics, climate crisis and fraying social compact. The holiness of a radical now is well and good spiritually, but not for its own sake. Torah’s call to be “strong hearted and resolute” is only so that the sacred can lead us forward, to forge the river toward the tomorrow awaiting us (Deut. 31:6).

That’s the ‘fierce urgency of now” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described. It’s why many Jews will re-read these same words on Yom Kippur, itself a day of fierce urgency. It’s why we must feel the future pressing on our shoulders, right now, as never before.

Perhaps this is Torah’s deep meaning of “Concealed matters are for YHVH your God, but revealed matters are for us and our children forever” (Deut. 29:28). The Masoretic scribal tradition renders “for us and our children” (lanu ul’vaneinu) with giant dots (nekudot) above the letters, hinting at deep internality in the words. For the Piacesner Rebbe (R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, 1889-1943, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto), the words call for profound faith that there will be next generations however much we may fear for the future. The “revealed matters,” then, are our tangible actions in the world to bring forward the Covenant into their hands.

The Piacesner’s words were especially poignant in 1940, but they speak to us now also. The world teeters: future generations depend vitally on our choices during this fiercely urgent now. This moment reveals itself to galvanize us, to feel history’s heaviness just over the letters of our lives – to feel the giants of tomorrow standing here today, pressing on our shoulders, ready to receive the Covenant – if we will act.

We stand with tomorrow’s giants on our shoulders. If we really felt the future on our own shoulders, would we live differently? If our answer is yes, we’d better start living that way now.
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Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.