Thursday, 29 Aug 2013

Written by Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

What are we doing when we read the Torah? Do we regard it as a resource for our own lives today, and engage with the texts as part of our own personal search for meaning and purpose? Or: Are we, like the generations who went before us, rehearsing an ancient rite as we read and reread the ‘Five Books of Moses’ each year in the context of the weekly rhythms of congregational life? Perhaps, taking a more objective approach, we read to gather fragments of evidence about the past; or, to explore the stories and mores of an ancient people; or, to discover clues to the civilisations of the ancient Near East. Perhaps we read the Torah as a work of literature; or, adopt a critical approach to its textual sources and their redaction.

Some of us will be reading the Torah for many different reasons and from many different perspectives – and, as with all the portions of the Torah, Parashat NitzavimVa-yeilech may be read on all these levels. Nevertheless, as soon as we identify this double portion, which runs from Deuteronomy chapter 29 (:9) through Deuteronomy chapter 31, we are situating our reading in the context of the annual Torah reading cycle, which dictates, depending on the particular year, that Nitzavim and Va-yeilech, will either be read together during the same week, or on succeeding weeks, one after the other. What is more, because within the annual Torah reading cycle Nitzavim or NitzavimVa-yeilech is usually read, either immediately before Rosh Ha-Shanah, or on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, these texts take on an additional resonance as conveyors of messages about personal responsibility, commitment and the need for repentance. Indeed, within the progressive Jewish world, passages from Nitzavim are also read on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. So, the congregations of the Movement for Reform Judaism read Deuteronomy 29:9-14 as the second portion on Rosh Ha-Shanah and read Deuteronomy 30: 8-20 on Yom Kippur afternoon, while the congregations of Liberal Judaism read Deuteronomy 29:9-14 and 30:11-20 on Yom Kippur morning.

These plural frames of reference generate frameworks of interpretation, even before we examine the texts. They certainly contribute to the way I read them. And so, when I read the opening words of Nitzavim: Atem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem – ‘You are stationed here today, all of you, before the Eternal One your God’ (Deut. 29:9a), I am not only encountering a narrative about the Israelites ‘stationed’ – nitzavim – in the wilderness, at the end of their forty year journey c. 1250 BCE, I am also imagining the Jewish people, here and now, gathering together during the most sacred season of the Jewish year. Significantly, the text itself insists on this identification. It is clear that ha-yom, ‘today’ is not just a transient moment in time, long since passed, it is every today. As we read at Deuteronomy 29 (:13-14):

Not only with you do I make this covenant, with its sanctions, with those who are with us today, standing before the Eternal One our God, but also with those, were not here today.

Rather than analyse every word and phrase of Nitzavim- Va-yeilech, I want to stay with the thread of connection created in the text by the word ha-yom, ‘today’, and take my lead from the opening statement: Atem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem – ‘You are stationed here today, all of you, before the Eternal One your God’.  In the second half of the verse, the message, kul’chem, ‘all of you’, is underlined by setting out a list: ‘your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers; every man of Israel’ – kol ish Yisrael (29:9b); a list which continues through the next verse (29:10):

Your children, your wives and your sojourner, who is in the midst of your camp; from those who cut wood to those who draw water.

The list suggests total inclusion of all those who are part of the ‘camp’, including those who are not Israelites. At the same time, it is clear that the plural subjects, Atem, ‘You’, who are being addressed, are the male Israelites: children, wives and sojourners belong to them.

So, when it comes to the readers of this passage, in particular, those who live within the Jewish ‘camp’ today, understanding the text as addressed to them ha-yom, ‘today’, is a very different experience for male and female readers. While men can identify themselves as the active subjects, women are presented with a challenge: do I consider myself included, along with my husband, or do I want to take active steps to be included in my own right? And for those women who do not have a husband, who are single or widowed or divorced or lesbian, do I feel part of the camp? Do I want to be part of the camp? Can I include myself? What do I need to do to be included?

And what of Va-yeilech, the second part of the double portion (Deuteronomy, chapter 31)? At first sight, preoccupied as it is with the final days of Moses and the impending succession of Joshua, it seems to be less relevant for ha-yom, today. And yet, the opening two words suggest something else: Va-yeilech Moshe – ‘Then Moses went’. An echo, at the end of the wilderness wanderings, of the first journey of the first ancestor – Va-yeilech Avram – ‘Then Avram went’ (Leich L’cha, Genesis 12:4) – the simple phrase reminds us that, ultimately, each individual is challenged to go on a journey; albeit, individual women have the additional challenge of including themselves. That is why the first part of the double portion, begins Atem nitzavim – ‘You are stationed’: to be stationed is to stand in readiness for departure. And the existential message is even more powerful: it is not possible to stand still, to stay where we are; from a Jewish perspective, ‘being’ is inextricably linked with ‘doing’ and moving forward into the future. I am, therefore I act. Indeed, at the heart of Nitzavim, the reader is presented with a set of choices: between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse (30:15-19), and so, ultimately, unless we make the choice to die, we are challenged – each one of us – to live: u’vacharta ba-chayyim ‘therefore you shall choose in life!’ (30:19).

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Ordained at Leo Baeck College 1989

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.