CAN WE STAND TOGETHER? Nitzavim – Deut. 29.9-30, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Some years, this week’s reading is paired with the portion that follows it, but this year because of Rosh Hashanah not arriving until the beginning of next week, Nitzavim stands alone. Indeed this reading paints a symbolic picture for us all. We, the Jewish people, stand alone. Can we stand together?
Moses harangues us in these chapters: “You stand today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d, your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives – and the stranger in your midst.” Yes, those not born Jewish who determined to join us, stood with our ancestors at Mount Sinai. “Your woodcutters and your water-drawers” are specified here – not to eliminate other vocations, but to illustrate that a humble worker had the same rights as a tribal leader when it comes to hearing the Divine Covenant.
What we were reading in earlier chapters of the Torah is good to remember this week. Those people standing at Mount Sinai included leaders and laborers, yes, and also included the children of rebels. Their fathers agitated against Moses, insisted they should forget about any Promised Land and should return to the “fleshpots of Egypt!” And now their children stand to receive the Torah?
Other witnesses to rebellion stand with them. Survivors of the calamity at Baal Peor, when idolatry combined with prostitution to produce an epidemic, halted only by the violent action of Pinchas – those memories are still with them. The Moabite girls were eager, and the Israelite men were ready to appease their enemies in exchange for those favors. Now those who resisted and survived stand to receive the Torah?
And what about the 10 spies and their bad report? It – and they – robbed the people of courage, so they were ready to give up. Run back, surrender, appease the enemy! They were ready to throw away the Land of Israel without even negotiating a nuclear deal! Should they receive the Torah?
Yes, said Moses, you are here. Your officers and your followers, your right wing and your left wing, your judges and your workers, your families and your tribes – stand together now. This Torah is your blueprint, your way of life for today and all the future days. And you know what? You will interpret it many different ways. You will disagree. Even your wise men will disagree. But you can still stand together, work together, become a nation. You can do it because you have free will!
Maimonides, our great legal and critical teacher, called this the “pillar of the Law and of the Commandments.” When Moses reminds us, “Today I call Heaven and Earth to witness, I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants,” he is just saying that we have a choice to make, that the Torah shows us what choice will bring us life, and make it worth living.
As we face a difficult New Year, let us hope and pray for the wisdom to stand together and make the right choices.