By Rabbi Jordan Parr
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 (ger) 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.
As we move to the concluding verses of the Torah and bid Moses a bittersweet farewell, Moses gives one last exhortation before passing the mantle of leadership to Joshua. True to Deuteronomic form, Nitzavim gives us the “if-but” formula: If you follow God’s laws and observe the mitzvot, then God will reward you. If not, well then, God will rain death and destruction upon you and the Israelites. And if future Israelites ask why such travails befell them, it will be because Israel failed to follow God’s word. In other words, the Mosaic covenant, as opposed to the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants, is conditional; this theme is prevalent not only in Deuteronomy, but in the prophetic works as well as in the Books of Kings. Foreign rulers are not power-hungry self-proclaimed gods who lust for land and treasure; rather, they are God’s agents, sent to fulfill God’s promises to Israel. And then, after Israel repents, kings such as Cyrus will act as God’s agent and return Israel to its promised land.
While this concept is surely important, what is even more interesting to me are the quoted verses at the top of the article. As Israel recommits to the Mosaic covenant at the shores of the Jordan River, Moses takes great pains to emphasize that the brit, the covenant, is incumbent upon all Israel. Not just the princes and elders, the men of means, but all Israel: Men and women alike, from the most powerful (those princes and elders) to the least (woodchoppers and water carriers), old and young, are required to observe this brit. No Israelite can say that “I am exempt because I am a (choose your own exemption).” When it comes to observing God’s mitzvot, there are no gender or class distinctions; God’s brit is incumbent upon all of us.
But there are two groups mentioned where it is clear that they must also observe the Brit, though at first glance we wonder why. The first group is the “ger” within our community. Today, we define “ger” as one who voluntarily chooses to become a Jew through study and ritual acts, including mikveh and for men, circumcision. But in the Biblical world, “ger” meant stranger, a non-Israelite who lived amongst Israel. Using the Biblical definition, the most famous “ger” in the Bible would be Ruth, a Moabite who cast her lot with Naomi, Boaz and the Jewish people. The mitzvot are incumbent upon the Biblical ger such as Ruth, just as they are required of the Israelites. But Ruth is not a ger in the rabbinic sense; she cannot convert to Judaism because she will always be a Moabite, never an Israelite. So, if you live amongst the Israelites, you had better follow their laws lest you suffer a terrible fate — even though you can never become an Israelite.
The second group that interests me are “those not yet born.”
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.
The Israelites standing before Moses accepted the brit for all Jews — for all time. And if your ancestor (or you) voluntarily accepted Judaism as a rabbinic ger, then you, your children and all future generations are obligated to observe the Mosaic brit as well.
Is that too much of a burden for us to place upon future generations? I vote no. No matter if a Jew is married to a Jew, to one who has accepted the yoke of mitzvot through conversion or even to a non-Jew, when we make the decision to live as a Jew, we implicitly accept the responsibility to raise our children as Jews. (Of course, our various streams have differing requirements and obligations for effecting this.)
But the bottom line is that as Jews, we have a vital and primary obligation to raise our children in our faith. This is the fulfillment of the Mosaic brit into which our ancestors entered thousands of years ago. It still binds us today. We can expect that future generations will walk in our ways because our ancestors expected that of us. When the Israelites accepted the Mosaic brit at the shores of the Jordan River, they committed themselves to furthering the worship of God for all time.
As we read earlier in Deuteronomy and recite daily in our synagogues, “You shall teach your children.” And we read a few verses later in this parasha, “Choose life so that you and your children may live.” The Torah is our life; when we choose life, we are choosing a life of Torah observance, no matter how we define that term. And we are choosing that life for our children and future generations as well.
With Rosh Hashanah just a few days away, ask yourself: How will you live? How will you observe Torah? How will you live according to the brit? And how will you ensure that your children and grandchildren will do the same? Our spiritual ancestors vowed that we would follow God’s mitzvot; they expect us to fulfill that same vow. And we should expect no less from our children. May this be our vow in the new year.
A resident of Richardson, Texas, Rabbi Jordan Parr is the rabbi of The Temple Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana. He is also the creator and host of Torah for Christians, a podcast devoted to explaining the beauties of Judaism to a wider audience (www.torahforchristians.net).