The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Torah portion Nitzavim, which occurs toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy, is read before the Days of Awe, but it was viewed as so important spiritually by the Reform movement that it is also read in Reform synagogues on Yom Kippur itself (rather than the traditional parashah).
The Israelites stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. Their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert have finally come to an end, and their future is uncertain. Moses soon will die, and the words of this parashah constitute part of the prophet’s farewell to his people.
“You stand this day,” Moses tells them, “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..” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
The bond between the Israelites and God is a democratic one, egalitarian in nature and all-encompassing in scope. Irrespective of gender, age or station in life, the moral and spiritual obligations of the Torah are applicable to everyone.
But they are not only democratic, they are also timeless.
Moses continues, speaking for God: “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 here this day.” (Deut. 29:13-14)
The laws of God, and the relationship between God and God’s people, are eternal. They transcend time and place. They are binding on all, both present and future generations.
The fact that the Torah applies to everyone, even those not yet born, might seem a little confusing and daunting. But Moses tries to reassure his people: “Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” (Deut. 30:11)
He tells them that the teachings of their religion are not “in the heavens” nor “beyond the sea,” metaphors for a spiritual way of life so remote and inaccessible as to seem almost impossible to observe. Rather, Moses says, “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 30:14)
This is a poetic and poignant image. The words of Torah, teachings of the Jewish faith, are within all of us. God has implanted them inside our souls, and it is our mission — and our lifelong challenge — to tap into them, to nurture them and to actualize them through our deeds.
Nitzavim makes it clear that it is up to us as to whether or not we follow this spiritual path. We are free to accept or reject the demands of the covenant. But there will be consequences.
“See,” the address continues, “I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15). And to reinforce the message: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:19).
Our options appear to be binary. If we embrace and observe the rules of the covenant, we will be rewarded. If we disregard or reject them, we will be punished.
For many of us, this theology is too black-and-white when compared to our lived experiences. The teachings of Judaism do at times seem remote and obscure; bad things do sometimes happen to good people. Our world today is marked by nuance and ambiguity, not certainty and automatic outcomes.
To modern Jews, the covenant — irrespective of how our relationship with God actually plays out in the “real world” — can feel like a burden. But it is also a blessing. The rites, rituals and ceremonies of the Jewish tradition can give our lives meaning and purpose. They can inspire us to be better people and to build stronger communities. They can comfort and elevate our souls.
Judaism is literally our lifeline.
That’s an appropriate message for Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe. And it is God’s desire for us, as Moses exhorts his people to follow God’s wish and “choose life.”
At this holy time of year, and every day, the choice is ours to make.