There are three fundamental principles of Judaism that are set out in this week’s parsha.
1. The idea of equality and shared responsibility of every person in the nation.
2. The idea of covenant.
3. The notion of the freedom of the individual.
At the start of the parsha the nation stands together and renews their covenantal loyalty to God:
“All of you are standing today before the Lord your God – the leaders among you, the tribes, the elders and officials, all the men of Israel, the children, the women, the strangers in your camp, from woodcutter to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, and the oath the Lord your God is making with you today”. (Dvarim 29:9-11)
Standing together are the heads of the tribes and the water drawers, the elders and the woodcutters. It is true that each person has a role, a status in society, however when we stand as covenantal partners with God we stand equally. We each pledge allegiance to our covenantal responsibility, no one is excluded and no one has any greater right then anyone else to claim Divine countenance. Whilst today the idea of equality has won great attention, it was a radical idea in the ancient world. Like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, society was modelled on a hierarchical system where those at the top were ‘closest’ to the divine and everyone else had to submit to their authority. The belief was that great leaders were divine in some way and hence possessed the right of authority over those of the lower echelons. The Torah offers a brand-new perspective. Every person, whatever their role in society, possesses an element of the Divine and is called upon to pledge allegiance to the covenantal history and duty of the nation. There can be no greater message to humanity.
The second fundamental principle outlined in the parsha is the very notion of covenant itself. Whilst in the ancient world the relationship between the gods and humans was one of power and manipulation, the God of the Bible represents a totally different paradigm. The God of the Bible ‘covenants’ with humankind. That is to say, He partners with them. In Martin Buber’s terms, the relationship of covenant is a relationship of I-Thou; a relationship which sees the other as a subject rather than object, an end rather than a means. In the ancient world the individual would manipulate the gods in order to ‘bend’ their will by bringing sacrifices (sometimes even their own children). In Judaism, God cannot be manipulated, but neither can man. Covenantal Judaism is premised on the freedom of humankind, and that being so, is essentially risk laden. Much like a couple entering into a marriage, there is risk involved: the risk that the partner will not be what is expected, the risk that we may get hurt, the risk that it may not be perfect. But an authentic relationship is one in which the two partners work together, without coercion and without manipulation, to create something worthwhile and beautiful. It is therefore not surprising that immediately following the renewal of the covenant God warns the people against idol worship (Dvarim 29:15-28). Idolatry is the nemesis of covenant. Idolatry is when an image of God is fixed and becomes static and we worship that image to achieve our own ends. It is the attempt to make God in my image rather than understanding God as something dynamic, a being that both transcends reality and is immanent within our own selves. It is when we attempt to define God rather than meet Him. Covenant requires me to exist within the relationship rather than dominate the relationship. Covenantal living is hard because it is infused with uncertainty, vulnerability and sometimes confusion. It is hard because it demands something of the partner - it demands commitment, allegiance and responsibility - even when the going gets tough. Covenant is a paradigm for adults and sometimes humankind wants to remain in its infancy. As we enter the land, God demands that the people do indeed grow up. Now is the time for them to become conscious of their role as the Israelite nation, time for them to reframe the way in which they relate to the Divine.
What follows in chapter 30 directly relates to the time of the year when this parsha is usually read – Ellul. Moshe speaks to the people about the curses and the blessings. He explains to them that when they return to God, He will have compassion and return them to the land. This is known as the ‘teshuva paragraph’. Moshe continues with one of the most fundamental principles in the Torah:
“I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life – so that you and your children may live” (Dvarim 30:19)
Choose life. To choose life does not mean to literally choose to live, it means, far more profoundly, to choose to LIVE. There are people who are alive but are not living and there are people who are dead but their legacy is alive and kicking. What Moshe is telling the nation is that as human beings and covenantal partners God has give us free will. We always have the power of choice. We can decide HOW we live our lives, what path we will pursue, what attitude we will take, what actions we will perform. We can decide how we respond to events in our lives, and whether to act in a covenantal way or not. I am not sure I am exaggerating when I say that this verse is perhaps one of the most important verses in the entire Torah, since upon it everything else rests. If we are not free individuals, we cannot be covenantal partners. The entire Torah, the entire edifice of the Jewish mission rests upon our ability to CHOOSE life or death. If we choose death in all its manifestations and meanings, we have essentially dropped the ball, we have opted out of the covenant. If however we choose life, we have chosen to take on the legacy of our people; not an easy legacy and not always a simple one, but one that ensures our children will live – not in a literal sense but in a far more profoundly meaningful one.
Parshat Nitzvim –’’you are standing” (or the parsha of יציבות – stability/foundations) indeed contains the three foundations on which the Jewish mission is built: equality before God, covenant and freedom. It is therefore fitting that it comes during Ellul, a time when we must remind ourselves that God has indeed made us equal before him; however low we have sunk, however much even in our own eyes we may not feel equal to the task, we are created free which means we can always change, we can always choose life once again. We are reminded that though we may not have stood before Moshe as he spoke these words, we too are bound by the covenant and are responsible for its fulfilment. We too belong to our people and are part of this incredible legacy. We too can choose to live as those generations before us have done. We too stand before God today and pledge our allegiance to his covenant at this moment.