A formula for nation building

Jewish peoplehood is neither an ethnicity nor only an inheritance, but an achievement.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IS PEOPLEHOOD a given or an achievement? Moses, approaching the end of Deuteronomy, utters a dramatic but problematic demand: “Silence! Hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 27:9).
The first problem is the word “you” (singular in Hebrew), where one expects an address to the group. Since elsewhere the singular is used in reference to becoming a people (29:11, 22), the emphasis on the individual demands explanation.
No less difficult is the phrase “this very day.” Even though the context notes the upcoming covenant renewal and even though the day reconfirms all commandments (26:16), the process of becoming a people has been attributed before to two other “minor” events: the Exodus (Deut. 4:20, Ex.
6:7) and the revelation at Sinai (Ex. 19:6)! Little wonder that Rabbi Yehuda (Talmud Brachot 63b) commented on our verse: “Was the Torah given that day?! That day was forty years after the event!” “Silence,” a third difficulty, is a term used only here in the Bible, not with Moses’s four earlier uses of “Hear O Israel.” Why now? The three difficulties, I suggest, lend themselves to be understood as a formula for nation building.
Can an individual become a people? I suggest employing the simile of marriage to grapple with the question. Certainly the idea of marriage can testify to one’s ability to become part of a collective, above and beyond oneself. The individual, while remaining so, becomes a defining (and defined) part of something other. This is an awe-filled moment at the wedding ceremony. Is it less so on becoming a people? Our simile, however, is disturbing. The perfection of the wedding is not always subsequently reflected in daily married life.
The verse’s other “difficulty” serves to clarify and refine.
When is “this very day?” The possibilities are enlightening. This might be one of the two days of the Deuteronomy context – either the covenant reconfirmation (so claims the Spanish Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra) or simply the day on which Moses was speaking. In either case, the text implies that one can almost recapture and reconfirm the past. Turning the clock back either in celebration or in trial (and our portion includes both curses and blessings) there is a request or demand to reestablish an earlier ideal moment. And as in the case of marriage, pivotal moments can become restatements of original commitments.
But a different explanation is possible.
Our verse appears as an independent paragraph in the Torah, and if one accepts the approach of “lack of temporal order in the Torah,” perhaps the reference is to every single day, and the verse might imply that in all moments, each individual has the ability to create or destroy that larger identity.
(So holds Rashi, basing himself on Rabbi Yehuda’s statement in Brachot, “Every day must appear to you as the day you entered the covenant.”) Again as in the marriage simile, peoplehood is so grand and so fragile a concept as to demand continuous caution, concern and care. In the words of the late Israeli poet Amir Gilboa – “Suddenly a man wakes up in the morning / And he feels he is a people and he starts walking.” What power for change every one of us carries! There is yet a third possible implication of “this very day,” if it is attached to what precedes, “Silence!” Becoming more than oneself, the text implies, requires a pause, a step back and a refuge from our own noise in order to understand and to build. The creation of an entity that extends beyond oneself will not “just” happen. Whether the moment is one of great excitement or simply humdrum, one must find somewhere therein the moment of silence, for being part of something greater does not occur independent of our determination and intention.
Whether in our metaphor of marriage or in our corporate life as a people, the potential reward is almost immeasurable.
Our verse speaks in the positive, but it behooves every individual to beware the negative.
The power of creation, if not used, can become the power of destruction. (Again, we here encounter both blessings and curses.) It compels everyone to pause, to listen and to recall that he or she is addressed.
“You ” and “today”: each “I” among us can become the people Israel. That means going beyond oneself, not imposing oneself.
Uniquely, Jewish peoplehood is neither only an ethnicity nor only an inheritance, but an achievement. It is a wonderful dream – that this day each of us would wake up, take a moment of silence, listen, and decide to become the people. Only then we can again begin to move forward.
Rabbi Benjamin Segal is a former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is author of ‘A New Psalm: the Psalms as Literature’ and the forthcoming ‘Kohelet’s Search for Truth: a New Reading of Ecclesiastes’