Nitzvaim is one of the most powerful and challenging of all our Torah portions. Moses is finishing his summary sermons and the passage has a major theme the idea of choice. The issue of autonomy and the challenge of if we have or do not have control of so many things emerges again during the High Holy Days as a major them embodied in the powerful unetenah tokef prayer. Much is and will be made and preached regarding this idea.
Yet, for this week, I wanted to look at a passge from the beginning of the portion. Moses is speaking to the people and he reminds them that he is making this Covenant not only with the people who are standing in front of him, but also “whomever is not here with us today”. ([29:13]-14) We have discussed, in recent Divrai Torah, the concept of what type of legacy we wish to leave. This passage speaks to an issue that confronts the Jewish community every day. If the Covenant is for the future, for Jews who will come to be in the future, how do we ensure that there will be a Jewish future? There is a classic Midrash which reminds us that all Jews, past and present and future, were all at Sinai. There is in our tradition the belief that each generation is to mold its definiton of its Judaism and help pass it on to the future. We are part of something beyond the “now”, beyond the “self”, we are a people if and in history.
But how do we maintain this ideal and make sure that there is a Judaism to inherit? As we have written many times, we are in the midst of creating a “new” American Judaism. Recent Seekers of Meaning podcasts featuring a varirty of scholars have advanced this notion. We Boomers have been participants in the creation of this new Judaism. SO what shall we leave for the future and how do we make sure that there is something to be found? As Rabbi Jonathan Saks has written: “How can religious identity be passed on from parent to child? If identity were merely ethnic, we could understand it. We inherit many things from our parents–most obviously our genes. But being Jewish is not a genetic condition. It is a set of religious obligations.” (p.318. “Essays on Ethics”) And therein is the challenge. Are we moving away from the embrace of religious obligations? Have we begun to relinquish the mantle of responsibility and replace it with “I feel Jewish”?
Obligation and responsibility are part of our sacred tradition and our Jewish world view. To some, this is being defined at political/social justice work. Yet, if that is all we are, do we not court Jewish irrelevance? Is the Boomer re-visioning of ritual and prayer a recognition that what we do must be rooted in a sense of text and obligation? If Moses’s speech from this week’s portion inlcudes us, and our future, how must be act to make that promise real? The High Holy Days ask this question on every page of the prayer book. Our Jewish future is before us. How shall we choose to make it present? Again, that choice is ours.
Rabbi Richard F Address