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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Not in the heavens

Parashat Nitzavim begins Moses’s final oration to the people of Israel. In it Moses anticipates the risk that some of the Israelites may turn to other gods. He both threatens them with curses and promises redemption.

What has made this parashah memorable, however, is its insistence that the Torah is for every Jew: “I make this convenant, 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” (29:13–14).

Whether this refers to the 40-year-old covenant of Sinai or to a reaffirmation of it is not entirely clear. Unlike a slightly similar passage in Joshua, it contains no formal covenant ceremony, but only offers the choice.

In any case, tradition has understood it to mean not only that it is a covenant for all time, but also that the collective assent of our ancestors binds each of us to it as individuals. Although it is God’s covenant with the entire nation of Israel, each of us participates in it individually and directly.

Parashat Nitzavim, because it is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, risks a degree of neglect. The Reform movement, however, has found it such a touchstone of belief and practice that we have chosen selections from it as the Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur (not the afternoon as the Plaut commentary states—the Reform reading for Yom Kippur afternoon is Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code).

The message that especially speaks to Reform philosophy is not just that God’s covenant is with each of us as individuals, but that the Torah is not reserved for an elite. Even in Biblical times it was a distinctive feature of Israelite religion that all the people participated in religious rituals, albeit in different roles. In other societies of the ancient Near East, ritual life was often reserved to priests and kings; in Israel, every family was enjoined to bring sacrifices and farmers has a distinctive ritual obligation, the offering of their first fruits.

This statement in Deuteronomy goes a step farther, and may reflect a change in sensibility from that of, for example, Leviticus, which emphasizes the functions of priests. It tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens” (lo bashamayim hi), that it is within our reach and not too baffling for us (30:11–12).

Reform Judaism has begun to make the study of Torah a central form of our self-identification as Jews. That is to say, when we study Torah, it isn’t just for the sake of information. Rather, the act of study itself is a key Jewish act.

As teachers, then, we should try both to exemplify this for our students, and to develop the awareness of and love for Torah that this parashah invites every one of us to pursue.

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