Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Looking Back to See Ahead

What a year 5777 was. Do you remember back, past last November? The presidential election came as such a tremendous surprise to so many that it makes last High Holy Days – only a year ago – seem as if that time belongs to another world.
Interestingly enough, if we look farther back, we may be able to discern more clearly. Jewish tradition teaches that the farther back one looks, the clearer our perspective becomes on the way forward.
“You have to understand the ways in which you are an heir before you can become a pioneer,” said the Jewish theologian Dr Byron Sherwin ז״ל. This teaching resonates more deeply than it has for years with for many Jews who, since last fall, find ourselves seeking a rock of certainty on which to depend in this time when American identity – and the Jewish place within it – are under attack. And indeed, the identity of a Jew living in the United States is not more than 150 years for most of the American Jewish community (392 years at most, since that’s when the first documented Jews landed in New Amsterdam from Recife of Brazil).
400 years tops, more likely 200 or less, is only a blip on the radar of Jewish existence. Almost everything we do is older than that. For example, the practice of kabbalat Shabbat, the singing of special songs to welcome Shabbat (such as Lekha Dodi),is older than that (created in Sfat, Israel in 1579).
It is really only in the past century that Jews have developed a sense of being part of the United States, even less than that since we began to feel our American-ness more prominent than our Jewishness. We only have to look around at our communities to see just how American we have become (and so quickly). We’re so comfortable that we laugh at those who warn that this comfort may only be temporary. We’re Americans, after all!
The shock of not being fully accepted is painful, whether it’s because our holy days are ignored (a difficulty which unfortunately many of us have abetted) or because when we seek to practice the values of our Jewish social ethics in support of American social justice, we are not always welcomed – and sometimes are greeted with anti-Semitism.
On the last week of Torah study for 5777 our Torah offers us the chance to seek perspective further away from us – all the way to the mountains of Moab, where Moshe stands and, one more time, invites the people of Israel to understand the Covenant of which they are a part. Moshe attempts to get our ancestors to consider a longer perspective than simply their own lives. What they do will reverberate through time to come.
וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-הָאָלָה,הַזֹּאת Not only with you do I make this covenant and this promise today,
כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם with those that stand here with us this day before HaShem our G*d, but also with those who are not here with us today (Deut.29.13-14)
On this Shabbat we are urged to consider the ways in which our actions will reverberate forward and outward, of course – that is a perennial Torah teaching. But on this Shabbat in this year it is also useful to consider the perspective from which we have come. When all about us is chaotic and the American democratic compact is under such stress, there is a far more ancient plumbline which hangs nearby for you to measure your life by, and a far more ancient Covenant to which you belong: the social justice vision of our prophets, the ethical teachings of our Torah, and the living wisdom of our people.
This too is Torah, and we need to learn it.
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