Reading last week’s Torah portion with the crisis prompted by Israeli “judicial reform” in mind, I was struck with special urgency by a call and a warning that the Torah clearly wants us to hear and obey.
The call comes at the very beginning of Parashat Nitzavim. “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water carrier — to enter into covenant of the Lord your God.” Absolutely everyone is included in this call. “All of you:” men, women and children, from the wealthiest to the poorest, the greatest to the least, “even the stranger within your camp.”
The Torah goes on to widen the circle still further: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but 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.”
Moses seems to be speaking to me — a Jew who strains to hear his words several thousand years after they were spoken; one who does not live in the Land that the Children of Israel were about to enter. Yet here I am, an integral part of the people and tied inseparably to the Land; a person for whom the covenant of Sinai is as precious to me as life itself.
It’s hard at this moment of disappointed expectations to grasp the excitement that the Book of Deuteronomy seeks to convey at the moment of the people’s arrival in the Land. Cross a narrow river, they are told, and possibilities will open for a Life unlike any the world has ever seen.
They will have God close at hand, and “laws and teachings” wiser than any that had gone before.
I was emerging into adulthood when I first encountered the promise that the Torah was holding out to me, a child of Israel, and I immediately connected that promise to the state that was likewise coming into its own in those years. It could be a just society, founded on the finest principles of Judaism and the best of modern Western thought! The prospect was thrilling. Like millions of Jews around the world, I fell in love with Israel as well as with Judaism, grateful for the gifts that our generation had been given.
The years leave their mark on a person — and on a society. I’ve had to reckon each Yom Kippur with personal failings as well as achievements; each Yom Ha-atzma’ut marking the state’s independence I’ve come to terms with the fact that Israel too, for all its many wondrous accomplishments, remains far from perfect. “It’s still a young state,” I told myself and others. “Israel will never be perfect, at least until the Messiah comes. No state is. But Israel is already doing great things and will get even better with the years. Give it time.”
The events of the past few months have made it much harder to believe that. Something decisive has changed in Israeli politics and society (eerily parallel to worrisome developments in America that are likewise unprecedented). Jews find ourselves divided by an effort to invest the prime minister of Israel and his governing coalition with nearly unlimited power, unchecked by the courts, the checks and balances, and the Constitution that have thus far saved American democracy from attempted tyranny.
Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have protested in the streets. A strong majority of Israelis express support for compromise. Israel’s president has worked assiduously to fashion such a compromise — and still, the governing coalition has pushed ahead, inclusiveness, let alone unity, be damned. Because it can. It has the votes needed.
“This is the meaning of Zionism,” I’ve heard more than one person say. “This is what we wanted: normaliyut, a state like every other; a people governed by might as well as right and interest as well as principle. Your side has lost. Your vision of Judaism, your reading of Deuteronomy, your definition of democracy — they’re so not what matter now. Get with the program! And, sitting in Diaspora, there is not a whole lot you can do about the situation. The main action of Jewish history is happening in a country where you have chosen not to live. That action is now under our control.”
Parashat Nitzavim offers a powerful rejoinder to that argument. This people is bound to covenant, not just to normalyut, and that covenant includes all of us. So does Jewish history. I knew, marching in a demonstration this summer in Jerusalem, that far more than the fate of a particular piece of legislation was on the line. Jewish history is being made these days.
Should the government carry through with announced proposals for “judicial reform,” unjust treatment of Palestinians and curtailing of civil rights, Jews living hundreds of years from now will shake their heads at the tragedy of a promise abandoned, incredible achievements tossed aside and ideals betrayed. Jews like me will remain attached to Israel but will do so with far less joy and pride. Others, Jewish and gentile, will quietly or noisily walk away from concern with the state, or join the ranks of its detractors. A great deal is at stake right now. There is still time to avert tragedy. We owe it to ourselves and our history not to go down this road.
I take comfort from the warning in Parashat Va-yelekh, the second part of last week’s Torah reading, that the project to which Moses has given his life is about to fail. “You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.” Va-yelekh was my bar mitzvah portion. I wondered then at God’s apparent cruelty to Moses. Did he have to know before he died that his life’s work had been in vain? Years later I came to understand that Moses had not failed: here we are centuries later, still trying to prove worthy of the Torah’s teachings. And the words of warning are a wake-up call. They are not directed at Moses, but at us.
The risk of failure is clear to all of us, and so are its consequences. Presented with a third chance to build a just society in the Land of Israel, we dare not act recklessly. Wisdom and good sense can surely be found, together. PJC
Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel.