Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Nitzavim 5775
A Holy Collective
As Moshe prepares to leave the stage of Jewish history, he invokes a covenant between God and the Jewish People. This is neither the first nor the only time a covenant is discussed, but here in Parashat Nitzavim Moshe introduces an element never clearly stated before:
I am not forging this covenant and this oath with you alone; I am creating this bond with those of you who are standing here with us today before God, as well as those who are not here with us today. (Dvarim 29:13-14)
The covenant includes all those who were present at that time, but so much more: This is a trans-generational covenant. All future generations are bound by this agreement as if they themselves had stood on the eastern shore of the Jordan River and heard Moshe’s parting speech, as if they had witnessed the forming of the covenantal community with their own eyes, as if they themselves had signed, as it were, on the dotted line. This is not a particularly strange feature of the agreement: Individuals often find themselves subject to agreements in which they were not active participants. Governments, corporations and individuals often make pacts that obligate others. Nonetheless, this particular agreement has profound ramifications, for it creates a new entity, a new concept: The Jewish People.
The Nation of Israel consists of the sum total of all Jews in the world, but not merely the sum total of all living Jews. The Jewish Nation is an aggregate that includes all Jews who have ever or will ever live. The covenant forged before Moshe’s death specifically includes future generations as well, and, by extension, applies not only to the covenant itself, but to all of the intellectual, spiritual and physical assets that the covenant accrues. The Land of Israel, then, is given to the collective People of Israel, and not only to those who were present when it was promised to them or even those who actively participated in the conquest. Each generation is therefore considered caretakers, not owners; the Land of Israel is the property, the birthright, the inheritance of the entire trans-generational collective. Similarly, the Torah was entrusted to those who stood at Mount Sinai, but it “belongs” to all of Israel. It is the spiritual birthright of each and every member of the collective. A teacher who refuses to teach Torah to any Jewish student is, in fact, withholding the rightful inheritance of an heir, denying the rightful owner of this intellectual and spiritual treasure access to what is theirs. Every teacher is an executor of a spiritual estate, and each and every teacher must see to it that the heirs - who may not be aware of their rights or may be incapable of fully appreciating the value of their inheritance- receive and cherish what is legally theirs.
There is, however, another side to this covenantal relationship. Because each and every Jew is a part of this larger collective, mutual responsibility is its unavoidable result; this is one of the most well-known aspects of Judaism. However, we might not have been aware of the scope of this mutual responsibility: Just as the covenant spans all past and future generations, so, too, does our responsibility for one another. A Talmudic passage illustrates this point: Tractate Rosh Hashanah (32b) records a tradition that the angels complained to God that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Jews do not sing the hymns of praise that make up the Hallel Prayer. God Himself came to the Israelites’ defense, explaining that these are days of judgment, during which “the books of the living and the books of the dead are opened” before Him, making this an inappropriate time for songs of thanksgiving, joy and praise. Interestingly, the text does not refer to the more familiar “Books of Life and Death,” or the heavenly ledgers in which all human deeds are recorded and counted on these fateful days of judgment. Instead, the books of those “living and dead” are opened. Surely, the book of the living must be opened in order to judge each person according to their deeds and merits, but why, we might ask, is the book of those who have passed on from the mortal world opened as well? Surely they are beyond judgment! Not so, we are taught: During the Days of Awe, the dead – even those who died long ago - are judged, not for their actions during the passing year, but for the impact they have had on the world they left behind.
Here, then, is the trans-generational covenant of mutual responsibility in action: The actions of the present generation impact the judgment that is handed down regarding those who came before them. By their actions, the living have the power to give new meaning to the lives of members of the community who came before them, to transform and elevate their legacy in this world and their spiritual existence in the world beyond our own.
At this time of year, as we are ponder the power of teshuva (repentance) to change the past, to turn our mistakes or transgressions into positive growth experiences, we should also consider the impact we might have on the more distant past. On a personal level, teshuva is both liberating and redemptive. It allows us to make a clean break, to free ourselves from the stain that we have inflicted on our own souls. Mistakes can be corrected; lessons can be learned. We can change our own past, and be energized and elevated by our newfound relationship with God. At times, the sin that is truly and wholeheartedly repented can become the strongest part of a person’s religious identify. This may be compared to a rope that is severed, and rejoined by a tight knot that becomes the strongest part of the entire rope. Moreover, the knotted rope, a metaphor for the relationship between man and God, is now shorter than before; the distance between man and God has become smaller. The sin and subsequent teshuva bring man closer to God than he was before.
The lesson of Parashat Nitzavim, though, goes even further than this personal bond with God, for we now understand that the trans-generational nature of the covenant allows us to share in the redemption of past generations as well. By upholding the covenant, we build our own relationship with God, while at the same time we impact the generations that preceded us in the covenantal community. We can give meaning to the sacrifices made by our ancestors, or redeem the opportunities that our predecessors may have missed. We can be inspired by positive deeds of relatives who may otherwise have been forgotten, and bring the collective Jewish people closer to God and closer to realizing our glorious shared destiny. Such is the nature of this covenant; such is the nature of the Jewish People.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden