Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
Some look to religion to transmit a sense of the majesty of the past. Traditions, because they come to us from a purer time, embody fragile vessels carrying remnants of a lost insight.
Such a view of Judaism correctly perceives the treasures of our ancestors’ seeking and recording their relationship with God. But it errs in transforming the record of that search into a type of fossil, a brittle relic that can only be passed from hand to hand, without any direct contribution from the viewer.
Such an idolization of the past removes God from the theater of our own lives, and threatens to trivialize the worth of our own continuing journeys, to ignore the harvest of our own insight and response. The Torah itself rejects this excessive veneration of the past.
In clear terms, Moses tells the Jewish People, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day . . . that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God.”
Three times, Moses stresses the phrase, “this day,” emphasizing the contemporaneity of God’s outreach to the Jewish People. Rashi notices this repetition, and comments that the chorus of “this day” indicates that, “just as this day enlightens, so will God enlighten [the Jewish People] in the future.”
God’s relationship to humanity is a permanent expression of love, an ongoing fact no less than gravity or sunrise. It undergirds the laws of nature, unifies human enterprise and the rhythms of nature. To center one’s faith in the past is to imprison God within a book or a set of books. Such a faith makes idolatrous even the most sacred of inheritances. To center one’s faith in the living Source of life, the God of creation and of Revelation, however, is to liberate one’s spirit to the continuous abundance of God’s ‘chesed‘ (love, grace).
Jewish tradition is sacred because it reflects our ancestors’ intimacy with God and because it cultivates in ourselves a responsiveness and an eagerness for that same intimacy; which means that, important as it may be, Jewish tradition is a means to a higher end–which is a love relationship with God.
For Jews, such a relationship may only be attainable through the practice of ritual acts and good deeds, through ongoing learning and through prayer. But the Torah’s emphasis of “this day” addressing “all of you” reminds us that, essential though they may be, the goal is not mitzvot (commandments). The goal is God.
Mitzvot are our special pathway leading to the splendor of the Holy One. As with our ancestors, the Sovereign of the Universe beckons to each one of us. Come, My beloved, come away. Today, this day, God calls to you, and to your neighbor, and to me. Today, even now, the Holy One of Israel awaits your response.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.