Rabbi Shelton Donnell
We are almost at the end of the book of Deuteronomy and now we find ourselves at the double-portion of Nitzavim/Vayelekh that include Moses’ leave-taking from the people and the appointment of Joshua as the new leader who shall bring the people across the Jordan. The parting words of Moses are particularly poignant, “Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all Israel: ‘I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. ADONAI has said to me, You shall not cross the Jordan. ADONAI your God Himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as ADONAI said… Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that ADONAI swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. ADONAI himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’” (Deut. 31:1-3; 7-8).
In Nitzvavim the Torah poses a question for us – to whom does the Torah belong? Who is responsible for observing the mitzvot and the statutes contained within it? The Torah answers this fundamental question at the very beginning of the portion, “All of you are standing today in the presence of ADONAI your God—your leaders and chiefs, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with ADONAI your God, a covenant ADONAI is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of ADONAI our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut, 29:9-14).
The covenant between God and Israel does not devolve only upon the generation that was redeemed from Egyptian bondage – the generation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai when the Torah was revealed – nor is it the incumbent only upon the generation of the wilderness wanderings to whom Moses addressed his last peroration. “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of ADONAI our God but also with those who are not here today.” The obvious interpretation of the text is that it includes future generations as well and that they “stood” together with the wilderness generation to receive the conditions of the covenant from directly Moses. And, indeed, this is how the commentator Rashi and other sages interpret these verses. But, why include future generations here? In response to this, the 13th century commentator Hizkuni observed, “All of you are standing today: all of you. In order to enter into a covenant: as one person. A covenant ADONAI is making with you this day: each of you is ready to do so today, and no one can say that they were not there and did not personally accept responsibility for the covenant…”
According to what we have seen so far, the Torah belongs to every generation of the Jewish people. But, the question – To whom does the Torah belong? – is not just a generational question it is also a social one. “All of you are standing today in the presence of ADONAI your God—your leaders and chiefs, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water.” Clearly, those who are the elite in the society will receive the Torah – both the rights and the responsibilities that accrue from it – “your leaders and chiefs, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel.” However, the Torah also belongs to the disenfranchised and those without elevated status in society, “your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water.”
- Professor Israel Knohl (Hebrew University) suggests that we look at these vereses from Nitzavim so as to include the foreigners living amongst the Israelites (הגר תושב) in the establishment of the covenant. What does this suggest about the ways in which we treat foreigners in our society?
- Other commentators propose that these verses imply that all the prophets and all future innovators of Torah were also present at the moment when the covenant was established. What implications does this have for liberal Judaism?