There are passages in our Torah that draw from us a visceral reaction. Next week, on either the first or second day of Rosh Hashanah, according to our different traditions, we will be reading the Akedah: the Binding of Isaac — a passage so important that it has its own name. Who among us has not reacted to the agony of Abraham as he prepares to sacrifice his beloved son; the poignant query of Isaac, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood — but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”; or felt relief when the messenger from God stays Abraham’s knife hand at the very last minute?
Another passage that evokes a reaction, for me, is found in this week’s portion, Nitzavim. The setting is “the other side of the Jordan, in Moab,” where Moses is addressing the Israelites for the last time in what is known as the third discourse of Moses. The Torah relates his words, “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 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; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore 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.”
What an amazing statement! Hearing these stirring words never fails to make chills run down my spine. Not only is the covenant inclusive of the disparate crowd assembled before Moses (including the often-excluded women and the most menial non-Israelite laborers), it reaches out through the ages to you, to me and to anyone who will open his or her heart and mind to it. What a revolutionary concept, especially considering that religious teachings of contemporaneous societies were funneled through the kings or priests. Our sages have connected this verse and concept to the Revelation at Sinai, where the souls of all Jews, past and present, were believed to have been present. A midrash in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sh’vuot 39a) further extends this idea to encompass all future converts. As a member of many beit din, I have heard other clergy cite this teaching to the new convert at the conclusion of the mikveh ceremony.
The inclusive nature of this doctrine is expanded in Parshat Nitzavim, 30:11: “Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” The verbs in this case are in the singular form, once again embracing each and every one of us.
The immediacy of the Torah, reaching out to us through the ages, and the inclusivity modeled so beautifully for us by God, are concepts we can take with us into this High Holiday season. Whatever our Jewish lives have been in the past year(s), we are still connected because, as the children’s song goes, “Torah-li, Torah-li, Torah-sheli” — the Torah is mine.
Paraphrasing a related thought in Nitzavim, it is not in the heavens or beneath the sea. In other words, it is not impossible to grasp. According to the Babylonian Talmud, of the seven things brought into being by God before creation, the first was the Torah and the second was repentance, so that humankind could always return to the teachings of Torah. All of these instructions convey to us that there is seldom the concept of “too late” in Judaism.
God’s magnanimity in embracing so many disparate groups of people and including them among those worthy to receive Torah is a goal to which we can aspire. Inclusiveness is a very current topic. Who sits on our boards or organizations? Do we include the voices of the disabled, people of color, youth or women? Do we listen, really listen, to those voices? Do we count disparate people among our friends and, if not, how can we work to change that? How do we “circumcise our hearts,” i.e., peel away the layers that keep us from seeing and hearing the voices of people not like ourselves?
As we are taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Fathers: “The day is short, and the task is great, and the workers are sluggish, and the wages are high, and the Master of the house is pressing.” Let us take the great gift of Torah earmarked for each of us so long ago and the Holy One’s beautiful example of inclusiveness into the remaining days of the month of Elul, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and beyond. PJC
Cantor Michele Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.