Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: “Those who stand with us today, and also those who do not”
Shira and Ehud Meirman are Beren-Amiel shlichim working at TanenbaumCHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto) in Canada, where Ehud is a teacher-emissary, while Shira is the Israel Engagement Officer tasked with assimilating Israel and Israeli culture through the school’s informal education track
The portion of Nitzavim opens with a description of the eternal Covenant forged between the People of Israel and God. The core of the Covenant is expounded upon right at the outset of the parsha: “That He may establish thee this day unto Himself for a People, and that He may be unto thee a God” (Devarim 29, 12). In other words, the People of Israel must commit to worshipping God alone and, in turn, God will take the People under His protective wings and be unto them a God.
A covenant, or a contract – to use a more contemporary term – is a frequently used constitution. It is common knowledge that a contract binds the signatories. Hence, the following verses (ibid. 13-14) are somewhat baffling: “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath. But with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.”
It follows then that the Covenant in question, in which the two parties are God and the People of Israel, did not only bind the people who were physically present when the Covenant was forged – “him that standeth here with us” – but also held accountable all those who were “not here with us this day.”
What distinction is being made here? Who are those who were actually present when the People entered into Covenant with God as opposed to all those whom God is said to address (“him that standeth here”)? Furthermore, who do the verses refer to when speaking of those who were not present when the Covenant came into effect (“not here with us this day”) and yet are still bound by it forevermore?
Rashi and Ramban combine these two separate definitions and explain that the verses are referencing Israel’s future generations. However, these two commentators do not explain the difficulty which arises from the distinction made between those who “are here with us” and all the others who are included in this address. And yet it goes without saying that the generation which was still to be born certainly did not stand with the rest of the People during that momentous undertaking.
A similar notion can be found in Midrash Tanchuma on the portion of Pekudei (3):
“Rabbi Yochanan asked: Why is it written: ‘Who doeth great things past finding; yea, marvelous things without number?’ (Job 9:10). Take heed to the following: Every soul, from Adam to the end of days, was formed during the Six Days of Creation, and all souls were present in the Garden of Eden and at the time of the giving of the Torah, as it is said: ‘With him that standeth here with us this day, and also with him that is not here with us this day’ (Devarim 29:14).”
Thus, the Midrash Tanchuma solves the difficulty of the “absent-attendees’, as it were: The souls of all future generations were indeed present; however, their presence was different from that of the People of Israel who were physically present when the Covenant was entered into. If so, what reason is there for making a distinction between those who were present in body and those who were present in soul?
In the tractate of Shevuot (39:1), another explanation is given:
“…This is as we have found written with regard to Moshe Rabeinu. When he administered an oath to the Jewish people in the plains of Moav so that they would accept the Torah upon themselves, he said to them: Know that it is not according to your understanding that I administer an oath to you, but according to the understanding of God and according to my understanding. As it is stated: ‘Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath. But with him that standeth here with us this day etc.’ [From the words] ‘With him that standeth with us today’ one might infer that only those who stood at Mount Sinai were included in the Covenant. From where can it be inferred that the subsequent generations, and all future converts as well, were also included? From that which the verse says: ‘Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath’ (Devarim 29:14).”
It follows then that “him who “standeth with us today” is a reference to future generations. “Him that is not here with us today” refers to the converts that will join the People of Israel in future.
This means that the descendants of the People of Israel, as well as all future converts, are bound by the Covenant which was forged between God and the People of Israel at Sinai.
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that the Talmud took pains to interlock the destiny of the Jewish People with that of Jewish converts. The fact that the latter were included antecedently in this long-standing and extremely significant Covenant between God and Israel serves to refute any hierarchical distinction which might exist between Jews from birth and Gerei Tzedek, true converts, since all had entered into the Covenant together at Sinai. It is especially important to remember this fact in our own times, when we are oftentimes witness to a discriminating attitude towards converts, which is completely unjustified.
After having established the identity of those “absent-attendees” at Sinai, we are still left with a baffling question: How can one be made to enter into a contract – and such a significant and comprehensive one at that – and be held accountable to it when this is hardly in keeping with the well-known halacha that says that “one cannot impose an obligation upon another in his absence” (Eiruvin 7:11)
The Malbim offers a logical explanation of his own: “It must be inferred that those who are not with us today are the descendants of those who stand here with us today and with whom the Covenant was forged; and that those who were present took [the oath] upon themselves and upon their children after them and upon all those that should join them, as is written in the Book of Esther (9:27): ‘The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them.'”
This means to say that in every person lies the seed of his offspring, such that all those entering into Covenant undertook the obligations for all future progeny as well.
Another interesting commentary is offered by the Ohr HaChaim:
“Why did Moshe have to spell out ‘and not with you alone?’ Would it not have sufficed to write ‘the ones who are here today, as well as the ones who are not, etc.?’ This would have made it clear that the Covenant was not made exclusively with the people present at that time. However, the whole intention of these verses is to obligate the people present at this time to commit their offspring to observing the Torah, forever.”
What this is telling us is that God not only compels the People of Israel to adhere to the Covenant entered into with Himself, but also holds them accountable for making sure their offspring will do the same. In other words, the fact that all future generations were included in the Covenant means that parents have to assume the responsibility to educate their children and guide them on how to fulfill the Covenant with God. In this way, the bond between God and Israel is perpetuated from one generation to the next.
This notion is nothing short of fascinating, especially when observed through a modern prism. In fact, the Ohr HaChaim talks about an intergenerational link and describes the commitment to the Covenant by using concepts like education, mutual responsibility and peoplehood. This lies counter to today’s educational approach, whereby nobody is committed to anything, and one can choose to be whatever one pleases; free oneself of any identity; disconnect oneself from the community and even liberate oneself from the constraints of gender, or anything else which might confine one in any way. In fact, today one can reinvent oneself void of the ties, the bonds and the setting into which one was born.
As advantageous as this approach may seem (and there is much to be said for the right to self-determination), it still comes at a terrible price: the erasure of the identity with which we were born and the responsibility to the community and to the family that come with it.
Hence, the lesson taught us in the portion of Nitzavim, whereby the Covenant between God and the People of Israel is an eternal one and is binding for all Jews – those yet to be born and all future converts as well – is a lesson that transcends time and enables us to preserve our uniqueness as a nation even in contemporary times when new and strange winds are blowing. It is incumbent upon us to understand that we have an identity with which we were born and that will remain with our children even after we are gone. It is our duty to understand that we are not alone in this world and that we operate within a community and a religious context which give our lives meaning and value. We must never forget that the connection between ourselves and God is eternal and that it is our obligation to nurture this bond and pass it on to future generations. In light of all of the above, and in our capacity as shlichim, we believe that engaging in shlichut throughout the Jewish Diaspora is paramount. It is no secret that world Jewry is currently facing the great danger posed by assimilation and, consequently, the Covenant that was forged between God and our People compels us to take action in order to strengthen the ties between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, and to reinforce the connection that exists between world Jewry, Torah and the Land of Israel.
Let us conclude by quoting from the Mishna (Avot 2, 16): “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Each and every one of us must take an active part in putting the Covenant into effect, i.e., fulfilling it, preserving it and passing it on to our children after us, both in the Land of Israel and outside it.
TanenbaumCHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto) is a community Jewish high school in Toronto, Canada, and is considered to be the biggest Jewish high school outside the State of Israel. As of today, it is attended by 1300 students, from 9th through 12th grade. In its capacity as a community Jewish high school, TanenbaumCHAT comprises a diverse student population from across the religious and social spectrum. As such, the school has exposed us shlichim to a great many Jewish lifestyles, and has given us access to many students who are not affiliated with a Jewish community on a regular basis.