Rabbi Leah Jordan, 30 September 2016
Atem nitzavim hayom kul-chem
You stand here this day, all of you
This week’s Torah portion is Moses’ retelling of the Sinai moment, that moment when we as the Jewish people first entered into this mysterious covenant with God.
The Talmud has one quite famous thing to say about this Sinai moment. In the actual moment, which this week’s Torah portion flashes back to, Talmud Shabbat 88a tells us that we stood, in the Torah’s words, tach-tit ha-har, ‘at the foot of the mountain.’ (Exodus 19:17).
In Shabbat 88a, this verse is interpreted that the people could have been at the foot of the mountain or they could have been physically under it. In this case, the Talmud imagines that God held the mountain upside down, over the people, and that they were literally under the mountain in this very scary way, and God said, “If you accept this Torah, good for you. If you don’t, this will be your burial place.” A very spooky version of events. Thus God is saying – I will literally drop the mountain on you and presumably you will all die in a terribly apocalyptic way if you don’t accept the Torah.
After hearing this explanation, Rav Acha bar Yaakov exclaims, “Well, doesn’t that furnish a reason for not following the Torah?!” A great question. If it was given under duress, why are we all doing it?
This, I think, speaks to the fundamental paradox of the Torah, which this week’s portion Nitzavim is all about. In this parasha, the Torah is referred to as hamitzvah hazot, this Commandment, this deeply binding thing, but then it goes on to say that this Commandment is lo niflet hee, it’s not ‘baffling’ to you, and it’s not far away from you that you should say, ‘Go up into Heaven and get it for us.’ No, in fact, we’re told, ‘it is in your mouth and your heart to do it.’
So there exists this paradox, which the Torah acknowledges, which is that simultaneously the Torah is hamitzvah hazot, this profound obligation, I might translate that as, while also the Torah – or Judaism, as it were – is something that we all have to voluntarily engage in or be a part of.
After this rightly incredulous exclamation by Rav Acha bar Yaakov – the question of how we can accept this when it was under duress? – the Talmud reminds us that later in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Esther, the Jewish people do decide to reaccept them on their own terms.
The whole Jewish project, therefore, is something – and you may have heard your mother say this if you have that kind of mother – that you can’t get out of. It is the har c’geegit, the mountain like a cask over your head. But at the same time, the Jewish people also say, naaseh v’nishmah – that we’re going to do it. Each of us also enters in our own lives into it somehow willingly.
This is why Liberal Judaism chose to change the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur to this parasha, Nitzavim, the second to last portion in the whole Torah. To remind us at this time of year, twice, once in our reading it now and again over the High Holy Days so soon: the Jewish tradition is something we as Jews are commanded to engage – but that engagement is not perhaps true unless it is something we take on in our own mouths and hearts, willingly ourselves.
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