(photo credit: REUTERS)
We often discuss Am Yisrael, the Jewish nation, emphasizing different points of view, such as its relationship with G-d, its uniqueness, and its devotion.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Nitzavim, we observe the individual when the Torah presents him with a challenge and does not provide the opportunity to hide under the umbrella of the general population and the nation.
Why does this happen in this parsha? The title of this parsha is The Covenant. Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation that everyone, from oldest to youngest, has entered into a treaty. “... the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp” – all these entered into a treaty with G-d. And, it was not only members of that generation who were present at that same event, “but... those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and [also] with those who are not here with us, this day” – Am Yisrael throughout its generations.
What is this covenant? It is a foundation “in order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your G-d.” A mutual covenant of belonging, as we declare in the prayers of Yom Kippur: “We are Your nation, and You are our G-d.” This is a covenant of commitment and a strong connection; a covenant that remembers the past, lives in the present, and commits to the future.
Anyone who stops for a moment and examines the meaning of this covenant would be elated about the power and transcendence which it could bring the individual and the nation.
However, this sort of covenant carries risk. It is difficult for man to grasp the meaning of this covenant. It is easier to comprehend G-d’s commitment to the nation in general than his commitment to me.
G-d is entering a treaty with me? Me, with my past? Me, with all of my traits? This personal kind of treaty is intrinsically hard to understand.
We are led to confront a difficulty of the sort described in the following verse: “... that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires that the watered be swept away with the dry.”
(Deuteronomy 29:18) Biblical scholars of all times have debated about this unusual phrase “that the watered be swept away with the dry” and attempted to explain it in different ways. Even its literal meaning is difficult to understand, and even more so, the connection of this sentence to the general story of entering into a covenant.
The preeminent commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch (a leading German rabbi in the 19th century) wrote the following about this verse: Man assumes that the blessings and curses are dependent only on the behavior of the public, and the public is sentenced by the actions of the majority; and if it merits a blessing and receives a blessing, the individual will also get his share of the general benefit, even if he himself is not worthy of a blessing; like rain that falls on the field and waters also the wild growth that is not worthy of watering. The plant that is watered because of its excellent quality is called “the watered” while the wild growth that is not worthy of being watered is called “the dry.”
The person who finds it difficult to stand before G-d and grasp the significance of entering into a personal treaty says to himself – I will be covered by the umbrella of the public. In his thoughts, he says to himself – If everyone will have it good, so will I. He does not do this out of spite, but out of arbitrariness, due to the human difficulty of softening and opening one’s heart. He does not see himself as worthy of entering into a treaty with G-d.
But G-d does not see you as so small. He sees you as someone who is worthy and capable of entering into an eternal covenant with Him, one of belonging and commitment. You, with your own personality, are worthy to stand in front of G-d, feel that you belong to Him and trust in His love for you.
It is so very important to understand this message during the days we are about to experience – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Judaism teaches us that these days are days of judgment and self-examination.
How we prepare ourselves and chart a path during these days and hours will determine the quality of next year. Only if we understand that we are not small, that we are capable of advancing and growing, only if we believe in ourselves, can we aspire to move forward and strengthen that same ancient covenant between us – each and every one of us – and G-d.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.