Deut. 29:9 – 30:20/Deut. 31:1-31:30
Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss
This week we read a double Torah portion, Netzavim and VaYelekh. The first parsha, begins with the words “Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem, lifnai Adonai Elochechem—You stand here this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God.” The text continues, “I make this covenant not with you alone but with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not here with us this day.
People of all walks of life are included in God’s covenant. Even before we had zoom—the Torah speaks of us having a virtual presence. It is understood to mean that we were spiritual witnesses to this defining moment in the history of Jewish peoplehood. We too entered into the covenant, through those who came before us.
A covenant, or in Hebrew a Brit is often explained as a contract we make with someone. Yet a covenant is meant to be more than just a contractual transaction. When the services are rendered and a payment is made in return, the contractual obligations are met, and it is no longer valid. Yet a covenant is stronger—it is built to last.
Each of us is in a covenantal relationship with one another, as a Jewish people, and with God. In Judaism, the individual is a member of a community with obligations. We left Egypt as a community. We experienced Sinai as a community. We are obligated to one another by a system of mitzvot-responsibilities.
To be a part of a people means to not live in isolation but rather, to be bonded together by a covenant.
On Yom Kippur, we reread this section of the Torah. Why would Netzavim be highlighted on the holiest day of the year? There are a couple of reasons:
First, Yom Kippur reminds us about the covenantal promise we made to God to follow the ethical teachings of the Torah and a Jewish way of life, and second, it reminds us of the promise me made as a community.
Most of our High Holy Day liturgy is written in the first-person plural– “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have lied, we have been broken trust, we have dishonest in our work, we have disrespected our parents.”
No one person has done all these things—at least I hope not—but rather we are collectively responsible for mistakes that were made. It’s like the one kid in the class who acts out and the whole class is punished. We declare-that’s not fair—I didn’t do anything wrong. And yet all our actions affect one another.
Nitzavim reminds us to look beyond our own interests and to be attentive and mindful of the needs of the larger community. It also reminds us that we are all entitled to equal access—from the woodchopper to the water carrier, to education, to health care, to respect and kindness. We are all God’s children regardless of our age, our gender, or our station in life. Netzavim reminds us of our responsibility to give equal access to all people. Even the stranger should be allowed to be protected under the law, as long as they abide by the communal standards. We often think of ourselves as “the chosen people, but that is not an elitist statement. Judaism is available for all who choose to follow its teachings. Though we don’t proselyte to others we don’t discriminate either. We live our values through our actions—we are a choosing people. A relationship needs to be reciprocal to last. As we begin this High Holy season may we ask ourselves if we are being good partners in our relationship with both God and our community. Are we looking beyond the needs of the self to also make room for the greater good. Netzavim reminds us we are all in this together.