Parashat Nitzavim

Creating an Experience of the All of You

By creating more experiences of community in which we feel connected to members of society whom we don't even know, we can increase our feelings of moral responsibility for one another.

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I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the college library when I first understood philosophically why every person in the human race was deserving of equal concern--my concern. The book I was reading, for a course called "Justice," was Immanuel Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals--not exactly a poetic read. Maybe that's why I had walked clear across campus to the farthest library to seek out a quiet corner by a window where I could read the dense sentences without distraction.

Kant's essay turned out to be the most straightforward statement and "proof" I had ever seen of the moral equality of everyone as "an end in himself." For the first time I felt a strong intellectual foundation for the beliefs and values I had absorbed growing up.

It wasn't too long before I was deflated by the discussion section leader, who noted that on a sinking boat, even people who loved Kant would probably save a family member first. So first term, freshman year, the issue was framed for me: the philosophical commitment to all people anywhere versus the emotional commitment to familiar people--family and community. It is a tension at the root of democratic theory and a psychological test for everyone involved in social action.

The Solution

Through the modern age, those who have read Deuteronomy through the lens of political action have often cited the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim as a solution to this tension. Speaking in front of the entire nation of Israel, Moses declares (in verses 29:9-11 and 13-14):

"You are standing, all of you, before Adonai your God--your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every person in Israel; your wives, your children, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water--so that you may pass into the covenant of Adonai your God...and not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with he who is present, standing here with us today before Adonai our God, and with him who is not here with us today."

Though Moses names every class and subgroup within the community, he simultaneously invites his audience to let go of the labels and the social segregation they represent. Moses encounters people with little personal experience of being together as more than a community of convenience. These people didn't experience and shape liberation together, or affirm God's commands "with one voice," or agree to a covenant for their society.

Moses gathers this new generation, bids them to look around at everyone else, and feel a shared commitment to the existing covenant. And he speaks to us, readers in future generations, asking us to imagine ourselves there, standing with everyone who has lived or will live.

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.