We are all products of someone else’s choices. For each of us to come into being and grow into our autonomous selves, someone had to make choices for us. What we ate, what language we spoke, who we spent our earliest social moments with. Those choices, and more, were in turn made for them. Each one opened some doors and closed others. Some of those choices were freer than others. We live with, and in some cases in spite of, the consequences of those choices.
In a society that values autonomy and the increasing ability to self-define, the idea that our worlds are already partly shaped for us can be a challenge. Jewishly, that shaping is offered in the form of the covenant- a pre-ordained relationship with God with a set of responsibilities, and punishments should those not be met. This week’s parashah, Nitzavim, contains a re-telling of that covenant when a dying Moses (on what Rashi suggests is the last day of his life) brings a new generation into it. He reminds them that the covenant is not made just with those who are there, but also “those who are not here on this day”. Those people, our commentators tell us, are the generations who will follow after- “your children, and your children’s children” (Ibn Ezra).
The potential fate of those generations is seen later in the parashah as Moses details the consequences of failing to follow God’s commandments. We are told (Deuteronomy 29:21) that these later generations will see punishments for turning away from mitzvot realised in the form of plague, disease, and barren soil. They will ask what caused these things to befall their world and they will be told that it is because their ancestors forsook the covenant and in doing so incurred God’s wrath.
The image of a generation who see their world devastated and questions why it is so, only to learn that it is the result of the deeds of their parents’ generation is painful. The text’s theology is deeply punitive, but it contains a truth that has particular resonance at this time of year. The actions we take don’t exist in a vacuum, our choices have consequences, and those effects may come to bear on the generations that follow in ways we can scarce imagine. I don’t think you have to accept this text’s theological premise to take something from this idea, or to consider what it might mean to be held to account for our choices by those who will inherit this world from us.
The punishments in Nitzavim are presented in relation to the blessings that will be granted to the Israelites should they observe the commandments. What’s striking about the Torah text is that the root שוב (shin, vav, bet) that is at the heart of teshuvah, the Hebrew word for returning or repentance, appears seven times in these verses. The blessings are presented as part of this process of returning, and the process of returning begins after a moment of accountability.
According to Maimonides, the first step in the process of teshuvah is becoming aware of transgression. The process of cheshbon hanefesh that Jews undertake during Elul, a kind of spiritual accounting, is a model for what it might mean to undertake a journey of becoming aware. If we are able to see the impact of our choices on others, then how different might our imprint on the world be?
As Jews enter into the final Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, our Torah poses the question of whether we must wait until our children’s generation holds us to account for the world we have left them to take responsibility for our actions. At the end of our parashah, a choice is laid before the Israelites between life and death, blessing and curse. This choice is not just for their own security and prosperity, but so that their offspring and the generations after may live. As we read Nitzavim that choice is laid before us as well, to enter into a moment of reckoning with ourselves, to become aware of the consequences of our actions, and to consider how our choices- be they political, environmental, or social- will impact the world for those who will follow in our footsteps.