Three of the most beautiful passages in all of Torah can be found in this week’s portion, Nitzavim. Together, they capture essential aspects of Jewish tradition: peoplehood, responsibility and intentionality.
The first passage connects many generations of Jews through time: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God. … I make this covenant, with all its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:9, 13-14).
Every Jewish person there ever was or will be is directly included in this passage, and it makes us intimately connected with each other through Torah. We belong to a people that exists through time and space. This passage offers a clear vision of peoplehood. When we accept the covenant that was made at Sinai, we have a people to which we belong.
The second passage recognizes our responsibilities: “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens …[n]either is it beyond the sea … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:11-14).
Tradition does not give us the option of feigning ignorance. Torah offers us the means of understanding the universe and our place in it. We have the tools we require to understand how we are supposed to treat others, ourselves and the Earth. We are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, pursue justice, and care for the orphan, the widow, the poor and the stranger. We are not to intentionally harm our bodies and understand that we are holy in the same ways that others are holy.
We are to care for the Earth, being careful not to cut down trees, allowing the land to rest on a regular basis, and serving as stewards in charge of all living creatures. Torah tells us how to behave righteously. We know, in our hearts and in our minds, our obligations, and Judaism urges us to fulfill our responsibilities.
And the third puts our fate in our own hands: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your offspring may live…” (Deut. 30:19).
In this final passage of Nitzavim, how we decide to live our lives is up to us, our choice. Moses here is asking us to reflect on all that we have learned, all that he has taught us, and to decide how we want to move forward.
There are many aspects of Jewish tradition that urge us to live intentionally and with awareness of the moment. The system of blessings is a comprehensive example of how ritual encourages intentionality. For instance, before you eat something, you have to pay attention to what it is in order to say the right blessing. Did it come from a tree, grow in the ground or come off of a vine? The answer will determine what blessing to recite. Other rituals similarly help us hone our self-discipline.
Think of the prohibitions on certain actions and tasks on Shabbat. Consciously not doing certain things that we usually do requires self-control. The better we are at self-control, the less likely we are to be at the whim of our gut reactions. When successful, our interactions with others are based on the way we want to engage with them, rather than how we might instinctually behave. Choosing life is choosing to live purposefully and righteously.
That is what Judaism is. Being Jewish is knowing that we belong to a people, through time and space, grounding us through the ideals and values we develop through our acceptance of the covenant. Being Jewish is knowing that we have responsibilities and knowing that it is within our means to fulfill those obligations. And, being Jewish means that much of the quality of our lives is a matter of our choosing. We can choose for ourselves to be thoughtful, purposeful and intentional, and in so doing, choose life and blessing.
As we prepare to bring in a new year, may these elements of who we are give us strength and direction.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.