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.
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Choose life – if you and your offspring would live –
by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.
Even as we make our last-minute preparations for the High Holy Days, which begin on Sunday evening, the regular cycle of Shabbat Torah readings continues.
The two passages above, one at the very beginning of this week’s portion, Nitzavim, and the other near its end, serve as brackets around the theme, not only of this portion, but also of Rosh Hashana: our lives as Jews consist of being in covenant with God, and God’s teachings; all of us, even the resident stranger; and that covenant consists of choosing life!
The first passage is, in its all-inclusiveness, revolutionary! Covenant ceremonies in ancient times were generally between the god and the king, sometimes with the priests, but never extending beyond the men of a society – in other words, those in positions of power.
In ancient Israel, however, those members of the society who were deemed of less power – women, children, the resident alien – were explicitly included! This suggests a recognition that, if every member of a society is not included in the covenant, then the community as a whole will not be able to truly live up to the demands of being in covenant with the Essence of the universe. Each individual has a role to play in the life – and fate – of the group.
And in fact the command, or exhortation, to “choose life” is directed, not to the community as a whole, but to each individual. We know this because the Hebrew word calling on us to choose life is in the singular – it is up to each individual to make that choice; and, again, the suggestion is that, if each individual does not make that choice, the community as a whole will not succeed.
The command to “choose life” is not limited to any one question or issue: its not specifically about abortion, for example. It is about the individuals that make up the community, and the community as a whole, living in conscious covenant with God and God’s teachings. Not doing so will lead to a much poorer spiritual life in the short run; and in the long run, it could mean that the society will not survive as a community! It is God’s teachings and commandments that give us the wisdom, the skills, and the common dedication to a goal, that will enable us to sustain our community over long periods of time.
On Sunday evening and Monday, as we reconsecrate ourselves to the sovereignty of God during our Rosh Hashana services, it might be helpful to recall these passages from Parashat Nitzavim: may all of us choose to live – in covenant with God and with each other, that our community may – in the words of that well-known Jew, Mr. Spock – live long and prosper.
L’shana tova tikatevu: may be all be inscribed in God’s Book of Life for a year of peace, health and well-being in all things; that is to say, a year of true shalom.