Nitzavim-Vayeileikh 5783 (2023)
One of many things that jazzes me about Jewish life is that it doesn't entrust its depths, heights and pathfinding only to rabbis like me – much less scholars and sages. Judaism's core is far more lowercase-D democratic: its paths are forged collectively, by everyone who commits to do Judaism together.
This truth helps explain why history has evolved many authentic ways of being Jewish and doing Jewish – rationalists and mystics, traditionalists and transformers, denominations and vibrant communities proudly outside the dynamic ebb and flow of denominational life.
Judaism's collective empowerment is the core message of this week's Torah portion. And as the High Holy Days are about to begin, this message – like so many spiritual truths – comes at just the right time.
Coming together is exactly the point. As Torah underscores, the Jewish covenant is made with both the collective and each individual comprising it (Deut. 29:9-14):
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃ לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְהֹוָ֥''ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃ לְמַ֣עַן הָקִֽים־אֹתְךָ֩ הַיּ֨וֹם ל֜וֹ לְעָ֗ם וְה֤וּא יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃
You stand today, all of you, before YHVH your God: your tribal heads, elders and officials, every person of Israel – your children, your spouses and strangers camping with you, from woodchopper to water drawer. [You] enter today into the Covenant of YHVH your God, that YHVH your God makes with you with its implications – to establish you today as a sacred nation and to be your God – as I said to you and as sworn to your ancestors.... I make this covenant with its implications not with you alone but with all who stand here with us today before YHVH our God, and with those who are not here with us today.
But, you might say, just because a covenant is made with "everyone" doesn't necessarily mean that "everyone" gets to discern its metes and bounds together. Torah continues with a direct answer (Deut. 30:11-14):
כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ וְלֹא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
For this mitzvah I command you this day isn't too baffling for you or far away. It's not in heaven so you'd say, “Who will lift us up to heaven to get it for us, and impart it to us so we can do it?” And it's not across the sea so you'd say, “Who will lift us across the sea to get it for us, and impart it to us so we can do it?" This thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.
"It" doesn't, but often we do. For many reasons, we forget that Judaism's core, which Torah calls mitzvah, isn't merely a "good deed" or "commandment" but "connection" (in Aramaic, צותא / tzavta). Jewish life is all about connection – within ourselves, to community beyond ourselves, and to the sacred we call God. (All "religion" is about that: the Latin word "religion" means re-ligate, or re-connect.) And we tend to forget that Judaism empowers not any one individual but the community as fount of connection to forge Judaism's byways. It follows that external things we tend to rely on for leadership and guidance – the rabbi, ritualist, ritual, liturgy, tune, time, incentive or tush kicking – can be helpful but, in the words of my teachers' teacher, they're just pointers. They're not the point. Don't confuse the pointer for the point.
The most powerful reminder is community itself. Perhaps that's why "it's not in heaven": it's right here, within all of us and among us all.
Even Talmud – the sine qua non of rabbinic authority – gets in on collective empowerment. Over and over again, Talmud relates a question about what Jewish practice ought to be (and begs a question of whether there ought to be an "ought to be" at all). And repeatedly Talmud answers with a sage giving a simple instruction: פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר / "Go see what the people are doing" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 45a; Eruvin 14b).
Put another way, "it's not in heaven." It's for the community to discern based on the essence of spiritual connection already within them.
Some might receive this empowerment ideal as off-putting, a feeble attempt to sell Judaism or spirituality, or as a responsibility too heavy to hold. I don't intend the first, and I empathize with the second. Both impulses are absolutely real, and navigating both impulses is a core part of spiritual life.
They're among many reasons that people increasingly say things like, "I'm spiritual but not religious," "I'm Jewish but not a believer," and religiously speaking "I'm none of the above." Most societal institutions have less power and moral suasion than they did two generations ago: they're eclipsed by rugged individualism and design-your-own lifestyles. And that's why, according to the latest survey results from the Pew Center on Judaism in America, the fastest growing Jewish identification in North America isn't a denomination at all but rather the moniker Spiritual But Not Religious, or SBNR. Ostensibly non-religious people still care about spirituality, bur they aren't finding in religion what they need, or they associate religion with something they don't want, or like Groucho Marx they refuse to belong to a club that would have them as a member.
But labels tend to oversimplify if not obstruct both pointer and point. They titrate analytical categories that we heap with meaning based on our individual understandings (whether accurate or not), and then they locate us inside or outside (often, outside) those categories. At their core, labels are about categories; they're rarely if ever about people.
So whether you consider yourself SBNR, a denominational Jew, Just Jewish, or some version of "none of the above," if you're committed to any Jewish life, then you're an essential part of the "everyone" that together gets to decide our collective future and collective pathways of Jewish life. It's not in heaven: we stand together.
As we round the corner toward Rosh Hashanah, may our "coming together" empower and inspire us to renew our lives and the ancestral covenant made with us, and all humanity, for all time. From my heart to yours, I send blessings for a shanah tovah um'tukah – a good and sweet new year – to you and all whom you hold dear.