This is my 35th consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write to me using the contact form on my banner (above right). If you don’t have time or energy to read, scroll down for lots of photos.
This week’s double parasha, Nitzavim-Va’yelech, opens at the brink of the promised land with a powerful call for unity.
You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God —your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer— to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (Deuteronomy 29:9).
At a time when the present-day state of Israel is tragically divided, this oratorical tour de force in the service of unity cries out for attention.
The Hebrew word used here for ‘standing’, nitzavim, is unusual. It suggests a mindful kind of standing, like ‘taking a stand’ or ‘standing to attention’. It’s also related to the word matzevah, ‘pillar’ or ‘marker’. When Jacob and Laban make a pact or covenant (same Hebrew word, brit), Jacob sets up a matzevah, pillar, as a witness (Genesis 31:45-48). In our parasha, the Israelites themselves stand as the witnesses to their covenant with God.
The word kulchem, ‘all of you’, makes it clear that everyone is included, but it doesn’t stop there. Women are explicitly mentioned. This is in contrast to the Sinai revelation, where we believe and hope that ha’am, ‘the people’ (Exodus 19:17) is gender inclusive (how else could s/he/they have seen you at Sinai?!), but we can’t be sure. At Sinai, after all, ‘the people’ are warned not to ‘go near a woman’, Exodus 19:15.)
Again in contrast to the Sinai revelation, our parasha specifies that children were included. This is so important and not to be taken for granted. Children are our future.
And again unlike Sinai, where firm lines are drawn between Moses and Aaron on the one hand and the priests and the rest of the people on the other (Exodus 19:24), here at the edge of the land, the crowd is non-hierarchical. At one end of the spectrum are heads of tribes, elders, and officers and, at the other, woodchoppers and water-drawers.
It’s obvious why leaders were mentioned, but commentators have wondered about the woodchoppers and water-drawers. Perhaps, as I just suggested, these occupations were low on the socio-economic ladder and thus appropriate as opposites for the tribal heads, elders and officials (though even in ‘good’ families, the daughters drew water, Genesis 24:15, Exodus 2:16). Following that thought, perhaps they signaled gender inclusivity: woodchoppers were likely to have been men and water-drawers, women. Or perhaps – as may be indicated by Joshua 9, where, in a curious episode, Joshua appoints the Gibeonites as woodchoppers and water-drawers in the house of God (vv 19, 27) – they are a sub-category of ger, translated above as ‘stranger’, but better ‘resident alien’.
On that note, it’s striking that ‘all of you’ includes the stranger or resident alien in your midst. Israel was often reminded to treat strangers well (last week’s tragedy in Tel Aviv involving Eritrean asylum-seekers suggests we need a fresh reminder). But this goes much further. The strangers who live among you are to some degree members of your community.
The fivefold repetition of ‘this day’ creates what has been called, beautifully in my opinion, an ‘eternal present’, closing the temporal gap between the day the words were spoken and the day we’re reading them. We are also included.
And, related to that, the words ‘those who are not with us here today’ invokes either past or future generations, or both. In name at least, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are present.
On Shabbat afternoon, I don’t read the parasha of the day, as ideally I would. I read the coming week’s parasha, to prepare for my weekly shiur at Beit Moses, a Jerusalem home for the elderly, and, for the past 35 weeks, to identify a topic for these posts. This coming Shabbat is the anniversary of my oldest son Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah, and there were a few months in the summer of 1999 when I heard atem nitzavim around the house a lot.
So one way and another, the passage I’ve been writing about was ringing in my ears by the time I went to the weekly post-Shabbat protest outside the President’s house. People talk about who is not at the protests, and for good reason. Every single person who is against the judicial reforms and physically able should try to come. If you’re in Israel, but can’t make it and want to play your part, you can donate to Ha’bayit ha’meshutaf, The Shared Home, organizers of the main Jerusalem demonstration, here. Or to Omdim Be’yahad, Standing Together, the pro-democracy, anti-occupation demonstration organizers, here.
But what struck me this past motzei Shabbat was the ever increasing variety — age, gender, and social and religious status — of people who are there. This week, education was the theme of the Jerusalem protest, and it was moving to see so many children and young people. They are our future, and what we do now is theirs.