Nitzavim: Still Standing

September 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Nitzavim | Leave a comment

Who is Moses addressing in his book-length farewell speech on the bank of the Jordan? In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”),  Moses begins to wrap up his speech to the people he has led for 40 years. He begins by listing everyone included in a renewed covenant with God that takes effect when the group crosses the Jordan into the “promised land” of Canaan.

You are the ones who are nitzavim today, all of you, before God, your god: your heads, your tribes(men), your elders, and your officials, every man of Israel; your young children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camps, from the gatherer of your wood to the drawer of your water; [in order] to cross into the covenant of God, your god, with its alah that God, your god, is cutting [i.e. signing] with you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:9-11)

nitzavim = taking a stand, stepping up, stationing yourselves, standing firm

alah = an obligation which puts a curse on anyone who fails to meet it

Moses includes not only all the men of Israel, regardless of rank, but also all the women and children. Moreover, he includes the strangers in their midst: those who are not of the same blood, but who have voluntarily chosen to join the Israelites–in other words, the converts. Moses even includes converts of low status, those who gather wood and draw water for the Israelites.

This is not the same group of Israelites and converts who followed Moses out of Egypt. Most of the adults in the original group  have died during the 40 years in the wilderness.  Some died when God punished various revolts with plague, fire, earthquake, and snakebite. Others died of old age during the 38 years that passed between the group’s arrival at the southern border of Canaan in the desert, and their arrival at the more northern border of Canaan at the Jordan. At the southern border, most of the people became afraid and refused to cross into Canaan. God’s punishment was to make them wait until all but two men from that generation had died before they could attempt a second crossing into Canaan—hence the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

Now the survivors are standing at the Jordan River, ready to cross. Most of them were children, or not born yet, when the original group embraced the original covenant with God at Mount Sinai. So Moses says God is cutting a covenant with this new group. But it is a covenant with a penalty clause. If they do not live up to their side of the covenant, following God’s laws and refraining from worshiping any other god, then the long list of curses in last week’s Torah portion would come to pass. (For example, parents would eat their own children as they are starved by both crop failure and beseiging enemies.)

When God gave a covenant to the earlier generation at Mount Sinai, they replied, “We will do and we will hear!” But in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses announces the covenant to the later generation, they say nothing.  No response is recorded in the Torah.

So why does Moses describe this passive group as nitzavim? Are they really taking a stand in favor of God? Are they standing firm, as the word nitzavim implies? Or are they merely standing there waiting for Moses to finish his speech so that they can do the next thing they are required to do? Are they following orders because they want to serve God, or because they have grown up with the Israelite system, and continuing to serve the god of Israel is better than the alternative?

Are they standing firm, or are they merely still standing?

But wait, there’s more. Moses expands the group included in the covenant, quoting God:

And I, Myself, am cutting this covenant and this alah [penalty clause] not with you alone, but with whoever is here standing with us today before God, our god, and whoever is not here with us today. (Deuteronomy 29:14)

Who are these additional people who are not standing in front of God (and Moses) that day? According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), they are the souls of all future Jews, yet to be born. Traditional commentary agrees, and includes both everyone who ever had or will convert to Judiasm as well as everyone who was or will be born to a Jewish mother. Converts enter the covenant with God at the time of their conversion, but people who are born Jewish have no choice; they are simply included. Different commentators have held different opinions about whether individuals who were born Jewish can opt out of the covenant or not.

What I wonder is whether traditional Jewish commentary is too narrow in its definition of who is included in “whoever is not here with us today”. What if the covenant applies to every human being on earth, forever? That would, after all, be the plain sense of the words.

Does that mean we should all be Jews?  No. I think it means we should all avoid treating ourselves as if we were gods. We should all avoid the curse of devouring our children, the curse of (metaphorically) devouring any other human being, the curse of devouring our own planet.

We should remember that we are small parts of the whole creation. And we should remember that all human beings are in a covenant together.

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