Parshat Nitzavim: Diaspora fanaticism and alienation are Siamese spiritual twins

Parshat Nitzavim is a lynchpin parsha, critically important despite its brevity. I have already written in the past, and posted some of my thoughts, on this parsha. In particular I wrote about the bizarre choice of wood choppers and water drawers — the two lowliest trades — as representing the polar extremes of the livelihood spectrum, as well as regarding how the Torah defines a ’man’ איש . I would be honored if you were to re-read my previous comments before proceeding to the ones below

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We live in a strange time, Jewishly speaking. A strong, vibrant, creative, energized, powerfully focused Jewish State has emerged virtually ex nihilo from the ashes of the Shoa via the ingathering of a mélange of exiles whose single common denominator was their very survival.

Yet from this grab bag of Jews – European and Near Eastern, Persian and Ethiopian – there evolved, in record time, a robust economy at the cutting edge of agriculture, medicine, science, and high tech; not to mention world-class creativity in music, dance and the visual and plastic arts. And all the while, Torah scholarship has flourished as well, with religious observance – normative, wholesome, ritual fidelity – becoming so mainstream that over 40% of IDF combat officers are now religious Israelis.

One would think Jews everywhere would be flocking to Israel in order to become part of this incredible renaissance and momentum. At the very least one would expect unbridled pride in what the Jewish State is achieving from every sector and quarter of the Jewish world.

Yet quite the opposite is happening. On both extremes of the Jewish diaspora spectrum one hears little in the way of encomium, and a great deal in the way of criticism, even outright hostility toward Israel.

Where does this animus come from? Is there a common thread that defines both the negativity of the extremely religious fringe and that of the ones who are speeding toward the exit hatch into Jewish oblivion?

Parshat Nitzavim can enlighten us.

In Nitzavim we are told the consequences of disobeying the Torah’s teachings, as well as what the nature of these teachings is. Nitzavim tells us how we can reverse the fate of exile we shall have suffered in the event we have ignored the teachings of the Torah.

The essential point is that observance of the Torah’s commandments and the privilege of residing in our own homeland are inseparable. There is no meaningful Jewish existence outside of Israel. Jewish observance in the far flung diaspora is purely a means of retaining our identity as we strive to re-earn our privilege to live in our own Land.

Doing what is right means we can live in Israel. Ignoring what is expected of us means exile. Returning to the observance of the Torah’s commandments means being once again free to reclaim our land and the right and privilege of living there.

1And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, אוְהָיָה֩ כִֽי־יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַֽהֲשֵֽׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֔ךָ בְּכָ֨ל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה:
2and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, בוְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ וְשָֽׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ:

Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:1-2

To return to G-d means returning to the Land. It’s really that simple.

At the same time the Torah admonishes us to understand that living in accordance with its regulations should not be onerous and so all-consuming that practical, normative, productive life becomes impossible.

To drive its point home and to reassure each of us, the Torah makes it very clear that observance of G-d’s mitzvoth is not arduous. That anyone can readily fulfill them. That the mitzvoth are not a burden. Instead they are a means of improving our comfort and quality of of life

11For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. יאכִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא:
12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” יבלֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
13Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” יגוְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
14Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. ידכִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ:

In other words we are reassured that Torah laws are not draconian. As the Talmud teaches in Tractate Sukkot, we are warned against extreme measures in observance because דרכיה דרכי נועם , “Its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:17). The Torah’s ways are meant be pleasant, to enhance our quality of life. What’s more, these mitzvoth are not improved by needless and uncalled for encumbrances and rigors superimposed by humans.

On the polar opposite extreme of those who seek to elevate themselves by making observance of the mitzvoth a Herculean if not Sisyphean task, are those who reject observance outright. For such Jews the consequences are spelled out very clearly in Nitzavim — they will cease even to be a memory.

18And it will be, when he [such a person] hears the words of this oath, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires,” … יחוְהָיָ֡ה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ֩ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֨י הָֽאָלָ֜ה הַזֹּ֗את וְהִתְבָּרֵ֨ךְ בִּלְבָב֤וֹ לֵאמֹר֙ שָׁל֣וֹם יִֽהְיֶה־לִּ֔י כִּ֛י בִּשְׁרִר֥וּת לִבִּ֖י אֵלֵ֑ךְ …
19The Lord will not be willing to forgive him … and the Lord will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens. יטלֹֽא־יֹאבֶ֣ה יְהֹוָה֘ סְלֹ֣חַ לוֹ֒ .. וּמָחָ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־שְׁמ֔וֹ מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:18-19

Indeed both piety and extreme alienation are  rooted in the ego. The religious fanatic, forever in pursuit of an even more demanding observance, cannot see what is right in front of him. He is s unable to recognize that he has far exceeded the criteria that entitles him to return to his Land. Instead, his quest for more severity paralyzes him in his exile and deludes him into believing that the Jewish state is illegitimate; that a “real” Jew must wait for a Messiah to release him from a bondage that, today, is totally self-imposed.

As for his fellow extremists who actually do live in Israel, they deny themselves the gift of being part of this miracle. Instead they live in a mental diaspora of their own making, seeing the thriving Jewish state as an even more vicious oppressor that any that preceded it, as they race madly into ever increasing extremism – an extremism that is so contrary to the spirit of the Torah. Their fanaticism paralyzes them and encumbers them to the point where religion become a full time job, rendering them incapable of feeding themselves let alone caring for their families.

Millions of us living in Israel are guided by the idea that identifying with the Torah does not, and should not, make life onerous, let alone impossible. Yet somehow our brothers and sisters in the diaspora cannot relate to us because to do so would make them recognize the absurdity of their own situations.

It is easier for them to wallow in their draconian extremism, awaiting a miracle that has already happened and continues to happen in real time, or to simply write themselves out of history and evaporate from this world without so much as leaving a trace.

How sad.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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