A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5783

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; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  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.                                                                  D’varim / Deuteronomy 29:1-3

Just as the day sometimes brings light and sometimes brings darkness, so too, you, when it is dark for you, in the future there will be eternal light. When? When all of you stand bound together as one, as it says: ‘all of you are alive today’ (Deuteronomy 4:4) It is the way of the world, if a person takes a bundle of reeds, he won’t be able to break them all at one time, but if he takes them one by one, even a young child can break them. And so, you find that Israel will not be redeemed until they bundle themselves as one, as it says, ‘In those days and at that time, declared the Lord, the people of Israel together with the people of Judah shall come…’ (Jeremiah 50:4) – When they come bundled together, they will receive the Presence of God.                            Tanchuma Nitzavim 1

Our Torah portion opens with a dramatic assertion of collectivism — “you stand together” — all generations, all genders, all levels of society, to enter a covenant with God. Even more remarkable is that it links all generations of the Jewish people, transcending time and space. Intriguingly, as the parasha continues there is a shift from this collectivism to a focus on the individual; individuals who will be tempted to break away and disassociate from the larger community. Such individuals will not find divine forgiveness the text tells us. In contrast, when Moshe pleaded with God to forgive “this people”, God responds with “I have forgiven as you have spoken.” Seeing us as a community standing together God weighs our merits and sins within that context, judges us, and ultimately forgives us.

In Safed of the 16th century, Rabbi Moses Alsheikh pointed to this shift from group to individual identity and called it “backwards.” The divine attribute of mercy is aroused by group identity, not by individual merit. The tension between individual and collective identity is present both in our Torah portion and in the approaching Days of Awe.

We routinely speak of the task of the Ten Days of Repentance as being to confess our individual flaws and become more faithful and righteous individuals before God. However, even as we engage in the confession of individual sins we do so in the context of community, drawing strength and support from each other. We are reminded that we must ask forgiveness from each other, that we are expected to forgive those who approach us with sincere apologies, and that these actions are intended to strengthen the solidarity between members of the community so that we may stand together before God.

Building an engaged and involved Jewish community is essential for individual Jewish identity. Standing together on the Days of Awe, affirming our connection to each other, and singing together, “We are your people, and You are our king!” thus affirming our connection to God. The time spent in the synagogue, during the Days of Awe and throughout the year, bring us as individuals together into a covenanted community.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg