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D’var Torah Nitzavim

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:

The learning cycle is about to begin again. Here is this week’s D’var
Torah:

The Torah’s Elastic Clause
Ilana Kurshan

In this week’s parashah, Moshe reaffirms the covenant between God and Israel in the presence of all of the people, who are gathered before him on the steppes of Moav. The Torah stresses that every single member of every class of Israelite society assembles before Moshe, including “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” (29:10). Even so, as Moshe notes, it is not just those who are alive at this particular historical moment who are included in the covenant, but also “those who are not with us here today” (29:14). The Talmudic rabbis, in discussing Moshe’s words to the people at the start of our parashah, explore the paradox of being present even in our absence, which is the basis for the transhistorical nature of the covenant and its enduring relevance.

The rabbis discuss the opening verses of our parashah in tractate Shevuot (39a), in the context of the oaths imposed by a judge on the litigants in a court of law. They explain that when the judge administers an oath, he informs the litigants that they are swearing not just in accordance with their own understanding, but also in accordance with the judge’s understanding and with God. Rashi explains that the judge is essentially saying that the litigants are being told that the ruling will not be dependent merely on their own understanding and feelings about the case, but also on the perspective of the judge—and the ultimate Judge. As proof, the Talmud quotes Moshe’s words from the opening of our parashah about how the covenant applies not only to the Israelites present before him — “not with you alone” (29:39) — but also to those who are not alive at the time. The use of this proof text suggests that the Talmudic sages regard the covenant between God and Israel as a court of law, in which Moshe, acting as judge, adjures the people to live in accordance with the laws of God’s Torah.

The rabbis in tractate Shevuot go on to explain that “not with you alone” means that the covenant in our parashah, which was a renewal of the covenant at Sinai, applies not only to those who stood at the foot of Sinai and on the steppes of Moab, but also to subsequent generations and to all future converts. The revelation at Sinai was such a powerful historical moment that it assumed transhistorical status; God’s voice, which resonated amidst the thunder and lightning on Sinai, would continue to reverberate throughout the generations. Just as those who stood at Sinai had affirmed that they would “do and listen” all that God commanded, so too, their descendants and all future members of the Jewish people were bound by that commitment.

But as the rabbis go on to teach, the Israelites committed themselves at Sinai to be bound not just by the laws given to them then and there, but also by “mitzvot that would be initiated in the future, like the reading of the Megillah.” The Israelites were agreeing to live in accordance with the laws they were given at Sinai, and also with new laws that would only be revealed in the future. The covenant between God and Israel thus included a sort of “elastic clause” stating that the Jewish people were accepting upon themselves all laws deemed necessary and fitting by the rabbis of subsequent generations, as the Jewish people and Jewish law continue to evolve symbiotically. As proof, the Talmudic sages cite the words from the end of the Scroll of Esther (9:27), in which the people “undertook and accepted upon themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them” to observe the holiday of Purim. As the Talmudic sages explain, the Jews in Shushan were “undertaking” what they had “accepted upon themselves” already at Sinai.

Why, of all new laws, do the rabbis choose the reading of the Megillah, and why do they cite evidence from the scroll of Esther? Perhaps the rabbis are trying to teach that just as God’s covenant applies even to those who were not present at Sinai, so too does it apply when God seems no longer present. It applies even to Purim, which is considered the classic example of “hester panim,” the hiding of God’s face since God is famously absent from the Megillah. We are bound by God’s Torah even when God seems absent from the historical stage, and even when it seems difficult to feel God’s presence.

Like Moshe at the start of our parashah, we all have moments in life when we feel the presence of those who are not physically among us. Sometimes we will speak to our children and hear echoes of our parents’ voices; then we will realize that we are not just acting in accordance with our own understanding, but also in accordance with the way our parents raised us. Other times we will speak to our students and realize that we are channeling the insights of our own teachers, whose understanding informs our own. Our parents and teachers are present even in their absence, just as we were all present at Sinai even though we were not physically there. Likewise, all the laws that later generations of sages would derive from the Torah were also, in some sense, present in the original covenant. As our parashah reminds us, presence can extend forward in time to later generations who are bound by the covenant, but it can also extend back in time when we hear the voices of those who taught us and those who taught our teachers, to the end of the generations. There is an eternal dimension to the presence that may attune us to the presence of the Eternal, reminding us that God, in spite of God’s seeming absence, is present too.

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