To write a Torah column is a particularly intense and concentrated way of being a Jew, of agreeing in advance that whatever portion comes one’s way, whatever pitch the Torah lobs in our direction, we’ll take a swing at it. This game isn’t entirely an imposition on the ancient text: This parashah, at least, openly seems to peer into the future to see us coming up to bat: “Atem nitzavim,” the parshah begins. “You stand this day, all of you. . . I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us this day.”
However pointed this attempt to bridge the distance between biblical times and our own, the sin that consumes the biblical writer, idolatry, seems an antiquated one, redeemable for our times only through translation into the more modern vices: materialism, greed, selfishness. The biblical voice is faint, directed at a set of obsessions we can reconstruct only with difficulty and make relevant through midrashic effort.
Nevertheless, there are moments in this parashah when the world of the Torah snaps into focus, not through a spiritualizing translation but rather in its connection to the realities in which we still live. One of these moments, embraced by the Talmud, resurrected by modern humanists, is Deuteronomy 30:12, which tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens”; and, indeed, the Deuteronomist earlier turns our attention to the consequences of human action on the Earth:
“And later generations will ask — the children who succeed you and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Lord has inflicted upon the land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it.”
Rabbinic culture has focused less on these manifestations of God’s wrath than on the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile. These are Jewish concerns, and Jews have often focused on them to the exclusion of our lives as human beings. But this parashah speaks to us also as inhabitants of the planet who, like others, draw their sustenance from the soil and suffer its degradations: drought, melting icecaps, desertification, toxic runoff from fracking, hurricanes. We breathe in the atmosphere of Deuteronomy when we detect in these “acts of God” the disastrous consequences of human vices. Or, to put it otherwise, of idolatry.
The parashah has a double structure, the first section issuing a grim warning and the other providing consolation; some scholars view this section as a later addition, a recognition of the religious necessity of hope: Repentance is possible, and the decree may be reversed: As 30:6 puts it: “Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring . … And the Lord will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your livestock and the produce of your soil.”
If there’s a civic religion in the Bay Area, it undoubtedly involves organic kale and dry farm Early Girl tomatoes. At the farmers markets this week, we’ll look for honey and apples and new fruit to make the shehechiyanu, the blessing of the season. Among the blessings of these farmers markets is to have brought back to us the meaning of season, to expect not identical packaged tomatoes in plastic but rather the very fruit of this moment, fragile and tasting of the earth.
I grew up in Brooklyn, and am only now coming to feel, between my fingers rather than on the page, the Deuteronomic care for what goes in and on the soil. Our small steps toward care for the planet that sustains us can feel symbolic, a narcissistic cultivation of our small patch, because the larger planet may be past the point of healing. But Deuteronomy wants us to know, in a way many of us have lost touch with, that we live from the soil, that our religion is in it, and “not in the heavens.” It is on this ground that we still stand, as did those who came before and those we hope will come after, beyond our own mortal limit.
Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She can be reached at email@example.com.