Parshat Nitzavim -- Entering into a Brit Hashem Together

Repeat after me:

Another world is possible 

We are authorized to enact our vision

Let me set the scene. Thirty-five young people are sitting in the circle. They have just spent the weekend together -- praying, getting to know each other, building off existing relationships, diving deep into questions of intimacy and trust in community, casually flirting, existing, living, building a Shabbat that feels like, in truth and my experience, a taste of the world to come.

It is the closing session. The name of the game is “The System is Broken, Another World is Possible.” Led by one of the participant chairs of the Shabbaton, these young people list the ways the world was broken, then imagine the future. 

I’ve seen this “game” facilitated three times now with participants 13-24 and it is, as the young people say, everything. I had never heard this ending.

Repeat after me:

Another world is possible 

We are authorized to enact our vision


What is this world? And what is this vision? 

I can tell you that these young people created a vision of the world in which all people are living a life that reflects their inherent dignity and worth. 

The opening verses of our parsha, Nitzavim, presents a similar vision:

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה … לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃

You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions.

How is this similar?

  • First, all of Israel is seen standing together. 

  • Second, their purpose is to enter into a covenant with Hashem.

Okay, maybe that is not exactly identical. But I’m going to reveal one of my core beliefs early on here -- I don’t believe that any one person can fully enter into a covenant with Hashem without themselves and everyone else living a life that reflects their inherent dignity and worth, and that honors the earth we live on.

I think this vision is also similar because it feels aspirational to me — at Shabbaton and in the Torah.  

R’ Dena Weiss, in her weekly commentary for the Hadar Institute, reads this opening section as “a statement of inclusion,” though she immediately qualifies this in a footnote:  “Though this is a statement of inclusion, it is arranged hierarchically from those most powerful and integrated in society to the least.” In this statement and its qualification, Weiss teaches something important -- there is a difference between acknowledging someone as part of society and treating them in such a way that implies equity.

The month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im are one of at least two times that we are invited to think aspirationally about our future. Passover invites us to consider what we will do with new-found freedom. In this moment, we are asked what we will do with a new world.

And, as we all know, we aren’t getting a new world. Baruch Hashem - the tradition also provides us with a way to remediate the world in which we live: Teshuvah. 

So great is teshuva, says Rebbe Hama bar Hanina, that it brings healing to the whole world. Rebbe Yonatan says. Teshuva is so great that it brings redemption closer. Rebbe Shmuel Bar Nachmani: Great is teshuva that it elongates the years of a person’s life! Rebbe Meir concludes:  When one individual makes teshuva, the whole world is forgiven (Yoma 86ab).

This week’s Torah portion happens to contain my spouse’s and best friend’s favorite section of the Torah:

11 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. 15See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity … and a few verses later:  Choose Life. 

What is the Instruction that the Torah is teaching about?

Most modern Bible scholars interpret the words “this instruction” in these verses to be Sefer Devarim, but Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator, understands them to be about the teshuva. This doesn’t come from left field: Nachmanides is simply reading these verses to refer to the return of the people referenced just before the verses I shared with you. At this point, I want to share that much of what I’m drawing from here I learned from R’Shai Held.

R’ Held writes that Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer, a 20th century chassidic master, “maintains that although many of us are convinced that we genuinely want to repent, most of us lack the courage required to go deep inside our inner worlds and repair what is broken. We thus prefer to tinker rather than transform. (Held, Parashat Nitzvavim, CJLI, Elul 5775)” The Slonimer offers the analogy of a person building an elaborate house on a foundation of rubble, pointing out the spending of money on fixing cracks rather than destroying the structure and fixing the foundation.

The system is broken. A new world is possible. And if a new world is possible, we need to break down the structures that have gotten us here.

It is not enough to have a vision of the world that Parshat Nitzavim opens with -- a world that acknowledges everyone’s presence but doesn’t break down the systems that maintain hierarchy and keep certain communities from thriving. 

It is clear to me that the authors of our holy Torah want to paint a picture of unity. Yet, much of our work to get there is tinkering.  So what are the tools that we have for transformation to build a vibrant, multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial world in 5780? To do the deep work that we are called to?  To step fully into a covenant with Hashem? Recall that I believe that we can’t step fully into a covenant with Hashem without ourselves and everyone else living a life that reflects our inherent dignity and worth, and that honors the earth we live on.

I’ll start with the tool offered in our holy Torah and this parsha -- Mitzvot.

כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  This instruction -- have mitzvah -- mitzvot. Mitzvot afford us the opportunity to see the divine in the world. The Mevasser Tzedek understands this verse to be teaching us to do mitzvot today, that the reward for doing those mitzvot is not too baffling or beyond reach.  Our tradition offers us mitzvot as a way to recognize and appreciate the divine in the world. In the world and in each other -- consider the blessings provided in the Talmud (Berakhot 58b) like Baruch ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam Meshaneh haBriyot… who differentiates creation.  Finding the holy in each other and the world is an act of repair, as the Jewish tradition understands it, and dismantling systems of oppression that seek to dehumanize each other. 

Another tool we have is the creation of spaces for storytelling -- through actual stories, poems, photography, fine arts, whatever it takes to open ourselves to the lives of folks who are different than we are. And to see the divinity in those experiences. 

Lastly, we can cultivate within ourselves the tools of curiosity, empathy, and patience: empathy and curiosity to connect with other people with the goal of learning; patience to listen deeply to each other. 

Working with these tools is core to building a world of justice and equality. We live in a world of division -- and by division I don’t only mean different opinions or the ways in which our political environment seems to pull us apart. I mean we live in a world in which systems of oppression are working to divide us. To keep us from building power together, from seeing each other as fully human. To fully enter into a covenant with Gd, we have to see the divinity in each other, we have to act on that seeing, we have to seek to understand.  

In her book, The Days Between, Marcia Falk offers the following understanding of “ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah -- to overturn the negative decree:

We become present

to the fullness of our live

and untether ourselves from the fear

of what lies ahead.

I would add:

We open to the experience of those around us and ground ourselves in the work of our ancestors and our descendents.

Ken yahi ratzon 

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah.