Sermon, Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelech 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
As a perfectionist I am always frustrated by the impermanent nature of most improvements. Fix a broken water faucet and sooner or later it will start to drip again. Get your car tires aligned and within a few thousand miles, or a few hundred, they will be out of alignment. Get a tooth filled and six months later you have another cavity somewhere else. Hire someone good for a job, get used to them, and then they leave. Life seems like a succession of lacuna, of ellipses, of fixing one thing only to see another break. As poet Robert Browning puts it “on earth the broken orb, in heaven the round complete.” Nothing is eternal; everything changes.
This is true in every aspect of life, and in every profession with the possible exception of government work. But there exists the possibility for something more. Let’s look at law for a moment—any lawyers here? Well, how would you like to write a contract that could never be broken, an agreement of such perfection that there exists absolutely no loopholes? How would you like to be able to create a truly eternal contract?
This is the last Shabbat of the year, the final d’var Torah of 5780. What a great Torah portion to send us off into the Yamim Nora’im! The rabbis who arranged our current reading cycle had a pretty good idea of what they were about. Our final parashah of the shanah, our last taste of Torah before the year changes, is a message of personal responsibility and commitment—and it includes a truly long-term contract.
Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem, it begins, each of you stand here today—every single Jew, every member of our community, men, women and children, immigrants and native born, wealthy and powerful and poor and humble. You enter into a brit, a covenant with Adonai, your God. You are God’s people, and the Lord is your God, and you agree to follow the mitzvot. And this is not some ancient, hoary agreement, yellowing on old paper, not dry parchment flaking into dust—this is very much a living document, a contract made not only with the people of Israel standing today but with every generation of Jew to come, with unborn sons and daughters of Israel for time immemorial, all Jews who ever lived, all who live now, and all who will live for millenia still unexplored.
Think about the sort of deal, the kind of contract delineated here: an eternal brit that extends beyond the grave, beyond the century, beyond the millenium, beyond all boundaries of time. A forever agreement that applies in all jurisdictions—from Sinai to Israel to Babylonia to Rome to Spain to Germany to Lithuania to Tel Aviv to New York to Tucson, Arizona. What a remarkable idea! This is the covenant that God establishes with us and our progeny, and it is, effectively, unbreakable. Because our ancestors once stood—nitzavim—before God, we, too, become partners in this unending covenant.
And what does this agreement consist of? If we return, make teshuvah to God, we and our children will be rewarded with open hearts, and with the openness of God’s heart toward us. Perhaps more importantly, we will be blessed with a Torah that is accessible to us all, a Torah that “is not too baffling or beyond reach,” a contract written not in legalistic language but in words that we can grasp and learn and teach to our own children and grandchildren. This is not “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world” to quote Browning again—it is a teaching, an instruction in the way to live life that is not high up in heaven or far across the sea—it is close at hand, in our mouths and hearts.
So we are blessed with an unbreakable contract here, eternal, endless, right? But then Nitzavim tells us something paradoxical, contradictory. We are parties to this great and ancient and powerful brit, yet we are also free to abandon it. God tells us “I set before you today life and goodness, death and evil—I call heaven and earth to witness that I offer you life and death today, blessing and curse—uvacharta chayim—choose life, that you and your descendants may truly live.” In other words, we are all party to this unbreakable contract—but we have complete freedom to either observe it or ignore it. What kind of perfect agreement is that? How do you like that for a loophole?
Now the great rewards of doing the brit, living the commandments are spelled out, and so are the consequences of choosing to ignore mitzvot and living a rotten life. But the choice remains ours.
Sigh. Another disappointment for perfectionists. For there can be no doubt that this is yet another time when we think we have things licked, when we believe that a great way to live has been effectively mandated, and we sadly learn that even God is unwilling to close the loopholes.
Beyond the obvious comfort that God is not truly an attorney—although soon, on Rosh HaShanah, we will consistently use prayers that see God as a judge, the highest form of attorney, right?—we must be satisfied with a remarkable level of personal autonomy and an even greater degree of respect for the essential mystery of the interplay of free will and morality. That is, we are taught here what is right, but it is always up to us to choose to act in those ways.
And perhaps that is the central message of this text. For what this covenant actually covers is how it is that we may best live—ethically, ritually, Jewishly. What it does not cover is whether we will choose to direct our own souls correctly, and come to live lives of blessing. God wants us to choose the right path; God urges us to choose the right path; God just about begs us to choose the right path. But it is always, always our own choice.
Perhaps that’s because if we were compelled to do the right thing always we would no longer be true creatures in God’s image, independent actors with the capacity to make our own decisions about how to live. We would be no more than automatons, puppets, robots, acting out scripts written for us by God. The goal is to have us make the right choices, to choose life and blessing and mitzvot, to accept that all other people on this earth are also created in God’s image and that our actions must reflect that.
The true brit here is probably encapsulated in another verse of today’s portion: Hanistarot lAdonai Eloheinu, v’haniglot lanu ulvaneinu ad olam, la’asot et kol divrai haTorah hazot. The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed truths are ours and our children’s forever… to do the words of this Torah… to choose to do the things God asks, to act to make this world a better, kinder, more decent, more honest world, more reflective of the values we wish to represent, that Judaism stands for.
The reason we are allowed choice may not always be clear; after all, if we didn’t have it the world could be made perfect very easily, right? We just wouldn’t be human beings anymore, or exist as images of a God who acts. Either way, we possess this gift of choice, and must live in an imperfect world. And thus perfection in our lives is not possible, but real virtue is.
May we come to discover our true course for the coming year, not as a process of personal or communal perfection, but simply as an acceptance of our role as representatives of a great and moral teaching, a continually evolving Torah of truth. That is perfection enough, and it has allowed this sacred contract to become a truly eternal covenant for all time—and for our time. May we, in this coming year, live to that standard.