As we find ourselves in the seventh month of the “new normal” of COVID-19 and near the beginning of the New Year 5781, one of the most popular catch phrases has become, “We’re all in this together.” This statement is intended to awaken within each person a sense of personal and communal responsibility as well as an understanding of the egalitarian effects of this highly contagious and deadly virus for which no cure has been developed. The Jewish people have long known this fact of life, and this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, begins with just such a statement.
Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem – You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God: your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, each and every Israelite, including your children, your wives, even the sojourner within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer . . . I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day . . . and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29: 9-10, 13-14)
These words are read on the Shabbat before the beginning of every New Year, the time when we acknowledge the sovereignty of a Power greater than our own, remember the deeds, both good and bad, which we have done over the past year, and vow to work towards making ourselves, our congregations, our communities, and our world better. It is the time when we acknowledge that “we’re all in this together.”
The parashah continues with a reminder that the people of Israel have already experienced a model of behavior that does not work. “You have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold, that [the other nations] keep.” (Deuteronomy 29:17) Nations, communities, individuals who collect material things as ends in themselves, who fail to utilize their possessions, their wealth, their talents for the betterment of all, these are nations that will ultimately fail. The covenant between Israel and the Eternal is intended, in part, to view material possessions, wealth, and talents as means towards an end, that end being a more perfect people, a more perfect nation, a more perfect world. It is good to possess wealth – so long as it is used properly, “to sustain the living, to keep faith with past generations, to uplift the fallen, to heal the sick, and to loosen that which binds and imprisons people,” to quote the Amidah recited three times a day, every day. After all, we’re all in this together.
This parashah reiterates a common theme in the latter half of the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy): every individual, every congregation, every community, every nation has a choice. “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . life and death, I have put before you, blessing and curse, so choose life . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19) Humanity has been endowed with free will; each individual is given the right and the responsibility to choose. “Everything is in God’s hands except for the awe of God.” (Brachot 33b, Mgillot 25a, Niddah 16b) So, while human beings can be instructed as to the better path on which to tread, it is up to them to choose to do so. The text provides an example of the proverbial fork in the road. The Torah portion exhorts us to choose wisely.
Yes, we’re all in this together. Though we are individuals endowed with free will to make our own choices, we are, as Jews, as members of a larger community, as citizens of this country, and as inhabitants of this earth, cognizant of the effects that our choices have on others in this together with us. We have seen time and time again, what does not work; we have seen civilizations come and go in which economic, military, political, and, sadly, religious power have been utilized in an idolatrous manner, as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. During these dark times in which we find ourselves, let us resolve to be the light that illuminates the road not taken over the millennia since this week’s Torah portion was penned. We’re all in this together, and it is only by working together that this year will be the first of years of life and of blessing for all.
Lshanah Tovah Tikantevu Vetichatamu – May you be inscribed and sealed for life and blessing!