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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Table for Five: Nitzavim-Vayelech

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One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And all the nations will ask, “Why did the Lord do thus to this land? Why this great rage of fury?” They will be told, “It is because they forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt.” –Deuteronomy 29:23-24


Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
The Chai Center

Once upon a time, to be Jewish in the United States meant to be a member of a synagogue and purchase seats for the High Holy Days. If you were extreme, you purchased two nice plots at Hillside Cemetery. If you were uber devout, you spent $50,000 on your child’s bar/bat mitzvah. 

Today, 6 months into the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s more complicated. With the High Holy Days around the corner, and most temples closed for business, it leaves many of us alone and wondering. When your temple isn’t selling, or you chose not to purchase, while the caterers are closed for weddings and b’nei mitzvah, you can’t help but ask, “With what am I connected to Judaism?” 

There is a disconnect that we haven’t seen in hundreds of years. Who would have thought a wedding can be performed with only 10 people in a backyard? Who would have thought you can get away with a bar mitzvah with only a minyan and avoid the synagogue Kiddush sponsorship and caterer? 

There is a new era that is cutting out the corporate middlemen and allowing us, as Jews, to connect to God through Torah and mitzvot directly. No filter. And you can save the bank. You think the Jews in Warsaw or Smolensk, Russia, spent big bucks to be Jewish? They sacrificed plenty. But it wasn’t on tickets to temple, to the caterer, or hard copy invitations. For the first time in hundreds of years, Judaism is given back to the people. It’s time to embrace the covenant God made with our ancestors. Do something Jewish today.

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins
N’vay Shalom

It is so easy to read these sentences in the midst of a raging virus, raging unrest, raging fires and raging hurricanes, and ask, “Why has all this been unleashed upon us?” Is this Divine punishment? Or perhaps God has been totally eclipsed?” Yet some are willing to look within and question their role in these health, racial and environmental catastrophes. 

The context, however, for these statements is important. The people are standing at the entrance to the Promised Land, where Moses reminds them of the covenant God has established with them or there will be consequences for failing to live up to their end of the partnership. 

Yet Verse 18 points to the behavior of one person who might rebel by hardening his heart (enacting stubbornness) or become “drunk,” saturated with his own thirst (his desires). One individual could impact the entire community and the land. It seems a mighty teaching on how powerful one person can be. The Talmud reinforces this idea: “When one person destroys a life, they destroy the whole world, and when one person saves a life, they save the entire world.” 

However, Chapter 30 reminds us that redemption will come if one “turns” back. A number of times the root shuv is in this text. Reading this parsha before Rosh Hashanah, the theme, teshuvah, is reinforced. We may stray and even harm the greater whole but God waits for us to turn back to our core goodness, healing our relationships with others, with the land and the sea, and with God. 

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea

Along with such stirring verses as “and your children shall return to their borders,” this verse from Nitzavim-Vayelech should be integral to the ethic and ideology of Religious Zionism. In rejecting secular Zionism’s notion that the modern-day return to Israel is disconnected from God, as well as the Charedi notion that this return is despite God’s intention (that we await the Messiah before returning as a sovereign Jewish nation), Religious Zionists regard the founding of the State of Israel as a fulfillment of scriptural prophecies. As God had promised to Rachel, her children have returned, and as God promised through Jeremiah, brides and grooms again dance in the streets of Jerusalem. It is disingenuous and dishonest, though, to cherry-pick the verses that speak of return and of joy, while ignoring the more ominous verses that predict our failure to uphold God’s covenant in the land, and the resultant Divine fury. 

Religious Zionists — in Israel and in Los Angeles — can serve a vital role in strengthening the covenant through cultivating a moral and religious (even if not observant) Israeli identity. Organizations such as Tzohar and Beit Hillel deserve our support. Returning to all of biblical Israel is also a dream and a scriptural promise, of course. Its pursuit today, though, is laden with moral and religious complexities and pitfalls. Returning the Jewish people to a relationship with the God of Israel and to God’s covenant is a more urgent and more straightforward pursuit. The fate of the entire Zionist project may hinge upon it.

Cantor Michelle Bider Stone
Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship,” quips fictional president Andrew Shepherd in “The American President.” American citizenship comes not only with rights, but also obligations. 

Six months into this global pandemic, the United States, with 4.25% of the world’s population, has 24% of the confirmed cases and 22% of the confirmed deaths of COVID-19. The nations of the world are looking at us and asking, “why this great rage of fury” against this land? What is the covenant that America “forsook”? Regardless of your view on how local or national governments have handled the crisis, our disproportionate number of cases and deaths suggests to me that we have broken a covenant to our fellow Americans: the promise to protect our communities and neighbors. 

In our verse, the land is destroyed because of idolatry. Perhaps our “sin” is that we have bowed to the altar of individualism. To be clear, I am interpreting sociologically, not theologically. The U.S. always has been a beacon of individual liberty, but it also has asked its citizens to work together toward the common good. I fear we have moved too close to the former and abdicated responsibility for the latter. 

To borrow from a popular Jewish phrase, we have forgotten that “Kol Americai’im areivim zeh ba’zeh” (All Americans are responsible for one another). I hope that, in this introspective season, this reminder might not only help save us from the pandemic but also many of the other ills plaguing our country today.

Rabbi Natan Halevy
Kahal Joseph

The Torah says that “all the nations” will “ask” about the land of Israel and the fate of its people. Biblical commentator Sforno explains that verse refers to our exile among the nations. This is quite relevant to the current state of our nation: Israel is highly scrutinized and widely discussed. The rhetoric of those “questioning” our nation and the Land of Israel may differ from the words used in the Torah but the disdain and disregard often displayed to our people and Israel stems from the same place of the “question” and “answer” in the aforementioned verses. 

Israel is called “a light unto the nations.” The world’s nations feel that as a “nation of HaShem,” the Jewish people are held to a higher standard and that our mission is to demonstrate an elevated path of life. They want us to illuminate the world and make it a better place. Some nations judge us more harshly, alleging we have forsaken the “covenant” and are lacking in the fulfillment of our mission. 

However, love and respect for Israel are growing in the world. This “question” and “answer” are always at the forefront of the mind of humanity. The Torah is giving us hope in that knowledge. As human beings, we respond to the feelings of others naturally. We refocus on the covenant and our mission. By living up to our potential as a nation, HaShem will shed light on the world in a way that will completely dispel the darkness.

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