Shabbat Nitzavim: What We Owe

Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) begins with quite a compelling scene: the entire Israelite community, gathered together on just the other side of the Jordan River from the Land of forty years’ struggle and search. The parashah begins with “you are standing this day, all of you, before G*d….to enter into the Covenant which G*d is making with you this day” (Devarim 29.9-11, excerpted).

This is already a curiosity; after all, didn’t we do this, back at Sinai, forty years ago? What does it mean to enter into the Covenant now, on the plains of Moab, on the cusp of the Land?

Our parashah goes on to specify that “not with you alone is this Covenant made, but also with those who are not (yet) here.” (Devarim 29.13-14, excerpted) This detail led our ancestors to question: how can the generation of the wilderness make a Covenant with G*d that implicates us as well? How can that be valid? 

In his Torah commentary, the medieval Sage Abravanel of Aragon explains that “there is no doubt that if a person receives a loan from another, that the duty of repayment falls upon that person, and on that person’s descendants. Just as children inherit property, so they inherit debts, even if they were not alive when the debt was incurred.” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim p. 299)

The Jewish Covenant with G*d is not a gift, he said; neither is the Land associated with it. The Jewish people inherits our position in trust. Something of our ancestors’ commitment falls upon us, and something of that wilderness wandering is our inheritance as well. We owe G*d a debt of gratitude, argued Abravanel.

What do we owe, and to whom? At this time of greeting a New Year, we feel the absence of those who are not here to share it with us. Recollect more deeply and you may feel the echo of many past generations, all of whom upheld some responsibility and knew some sense of indebtedness for that which they had. We are born into a world we did not make, and would too easily accept it as a gift. But it is not a gift. We are born into a Covenant reality and in each generation it falls to new hands to pass it on, to pay it forward.

The generation that stood at the Jordan learned this on the plains of Moab: their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai, and they themselves also stood before G*d, though they were not at Sinai. Or perhaps because they understood in that moment that when they stood together in Covenant, that place – wherever they were – was Sinai. The same message is offered to us every year during the holy day of Shavuot, when we stand, again, at Sinai, wherever we are, and hear, once again, the words of Covenant, and of our eternal indebtedness.

This week we marked the death of Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of the State of Israel. One more generation passes, and as Amos Oz asked at his funeral, who will now take up his cause of peace? Who will count themselves indebted to the Covenant he tried to uphold?

To those who planted trees, the fruit of which we eat, we owe our sustenance; to those who built roads, we owe our ability to go where we will. And to those who created the conditions within which we were born, and raised, and learned, and grew – to that village, of whatever size, in which we lived in a Covenant relationship that allowed us to thrive or at least to survive, we are indebted.

On the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is a tradition to visit a cemetery, to reflect upon those who came before us, and faithfully discharged their part of the debt we all owe. It cannot be paid back, but only forward – by tzedakah, by gemilut hasadim, and by asking not “what is owed to me?” but rather, “what can I do to give back in gratitude for the gift of my life?”

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