Sunday, September 14, 2014

To Be a Jew is to Exist, Out of Earthly, and Into Spiritual, Universal, Time: The Power of Nitzavim-Vayelech

Here, Moses reaches the epitome of his speaking powers, commanding all Israel to remain faithful to the sacred covenant with God as described in the Torah. To whom exactly does he address his words? Attempting to answer this question, the text reels through time, its audience first appearing to be the Dor Haye’tsiah/Exodus Generation, which escaped Egypt and died in the wilderness, afterwards shifting to the Dor HaMidbar/Wilderness Generation, which was born after the sin of the Golden Calf, and grew up, free, in the Wilderness, knowing Egyptian slavery only from their parents’ stories (as we do, on Pesach), and faithful only to Moses and Joshua. Moses’s prophecy moves both backward and forward in history, from all Jews who were ever born in the past, into the as-yet-unknown future history of our people, far beyond our lives today, as we strive to keep our people active and faithful to the Eternal Covenant with God.
What I love about this God-language is that Moses addresses, not only our Wilderness ancestors, but all of us Jews—we are truly a People who dwell, not only within, but outside of human history. His speech is so appropriate for this time of year, as we approach the holidays which depend on Time, more than any others in the Jewish calendar. In our modern world, Time dominates our lives in myriad ways, from the daily schedules we follow, the cellphones we carry and covet, the computers we depend on, and the machines which we believe we control, yet which inexorably dominate our lives. These timeless words of Moses—“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God” (Deut. 29:9),—speak, not only to tribespeople living in a cloudy, distant Past, but to all of us, Today. We are not bound by cellphones or human schedules; we are truly bound only by the holy laws of Torah and God.
            Beyond the standard conditional warnings of prophecy—“If you fulfill God’s will, then God will ensure your prosperity”—we find an idea fundamental to Jewish thought, especially around this time of year: that of teshuva, doing repentance, and returning to God. When Israel crosses over the Jordan and abandons God for the idolatrous, but attractive, cults of the Canaanites, God may punish them for a time, but will never totally abandon them, instead hoping that they will rediscover how much God loves them and desires to draw them near. In a world of materialistic tawdriness and gimcrackery, let us always make time to bring the lasting and sacred into our lives.
“I have never lived a Godly life before,” you may say, “How can I begin now? How can I make keeping Shabbat, lighting candles, coming to temple, part of my life? I have gone too far in the opposite direction; I am lost….”
No: there is always Hope. Indeed, our tradition teaches that a repentant sinner is more precious to God than someone who has always lived a religious life, because the former has succeeded in taking the evil of his previous existence and converting it to spiritual light.
            Moses then addresses his primary disciple, Joshua, who will lead Israel after Moses’s death. The aged prophet despairs: God has granted him a vision of the Israelites backsliding in the future. Are we therefore always doomed to fall short of God’s expectations?

I believe with all my heart that the Jewish relationship with God today continues as strongly as it has been, iron-plated and copper-sheathed, despite our tendency to doubt and quibble about the details. God may well have questions about us, but loves us, nonetheless, as a parent does an erring child. “If you come towards me even one hand’s-breadth,” says God, “I will come from miles away, and cover the remainder of the distance between us. I am as close to you as your heart and soul.” Remember this. Always remember—and Shana Tova—a Happy and Healthy New Year.