Before God as community, and as individuals

Gathering everyone into God’s covenant

I am always in awe of this week’s Torah Portion, Nitzavim, because in my mind’s eye, the sight must have been overwhelming: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal 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 Eternal your God…”
Imagine all those people standing before God, entering into a covenant with God. But it wasn’t just the tribal heads, the elders and the officials, the so-called important people, who entered into the covenant. No, the covenant includes women, children, non-Jews who were attached to the community, the most menial of workers, everyone. Being Jewish in covenant with God wasn’t reserved for the privileged few, but for us all, no matter how learned or ignorant, wealthy or poor, powerful or vulnerable.
Yet, that inclusion extended even further: “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with both those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
There are at least two ways to interpret these verses. The first is practical. Just because you were sick in bed and couldn’t stand before God at that moment, didn’t mean you weren’t included. The second interpretation is more profound: “Not with us this day” includes anyone who ever was Jewish, and also anyone who ever will be Jewish. All the Jews who ever lived, all the Jews alive today, all the Jews yet to be born or choosing to join the Jewish people in the future, we all stood at Sinai. Past, present and future, we all entered into the covenant with God both collectively as a Jewish people, and individually, uniquely.
In only a few days, we shall stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We shall confess our sins collectively: ashamnu, we have trespassed, bagadnu, we have betrayed, gazalnu, we have stolen, we have collectively committed an aleph-bet of sins. Yet even as we gather in the largest crowds of the year, even as we admit our collective guilt, each of us stands alone, individually, uniquely before God. Even in our multitudes, we, alone, bear our own individual failings and our own unique shortcomings. We are all called before God to answer as a community for the sins we have committed. Yet, each of us needs to contemplate and to resolve how to become a better person, individually and uniquely. We each of us stood at Sinai, and we will each of us stand to account before God.
I wish you all a sweet, happy and healthy New Year.

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