This summer, my family and I spent four nights at my mom and step-dad’s house in Vermont. For two of the nights we were there, our group consisted of 11 adults and four children, ranging in age from 14 months to 7 years old. I spent a lot of time thinking about food. What will we feed our toddler for lunch? Do we have enough bananas? (We never have enough bananas.) Does someone else want these leftovers? Why didn’t [redacted] do their dishes? What is the right timing for getting together toppings and then grilling pizzas for all of us? Watching my family plan, cook, and clean up after meals continues to be one of my most profound, tangible experiences of being part of a collective.
The need to balance my individual needs and desires with that of a collective has never felt more acute to me. The ongoing global struggles with COVID, climate change, and refugee crises bring this need to my mind in a more concrete, material way. This moment in our Jewish calendar, en route from the collective grief of Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where we will collectively celebrate the beginning of a new year, atone for our shortcomings, and set intentions for the coming year, brings this to my mind in a spiritual sense. The categories of concrete, material, and spiritual are not mutually exclusive; neither are our experiences of the world and our religious calendar.
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, invites us to think about the ways in which these tensions—between ourselves as individuals with needs and desires and as members of various communities—can be transformative. In its opening we are immediately invited into the collective:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם…
You who are standing today, all of you, before YHVH your God—your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
These verses draw me into a palpable collective. I imagine myself as part of the “you,” one of the masses staring up and listening intently. I can feel the crowd pushing against each other, and sense those who have zoned out during the initial parts of Moses’ farewell address snapping to attention at the word “אַתֶּם (you).” In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century, Germany), the root of the word “נִצָּבִים (standing)” denotes that the Israelites are “standing firmly, standing powerfully with energetic perseverance.” Yes.
Our text continues with an invitation into collective purpose and transformation.
לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית — to enter into the covenant of YHVH your God, which YHVH your God is enacting with you today (Deuterotomy 29:11).
The covenant is the source of collective purpose; an invitation to transformation. Here, too, I am drawing on Hirsch, who comments on the use of the verb “לְעׇבְרְךָ֗ (to pass over or to go over),” translated above as “to enter.” Hirsch teaches: “Once you entered into a covenant with God, your standpoint is fundamentally different from the one you held before.” Whether we call it a covenant, a relationship with God, or a sense of collective purpose, the Torah is opening the possibility of our being in a transformative relationship with the world we live in.
It is near impossible to live in our world and not be transformed by that experience—to have our hearts opened by fear, grief, joy, awe, beauty, song, connection with each other and the physical world, and so many other facets of being human.
Many of us have been living in a transformative relationship with the world for a long time, opening ourselves to the greater context in which we live and allowing ourselves to be changed by it. Others have resisted this change, perhaps out of a sense of self preservation, a bulwark against the overwhelming experience of being human. There is so much surrounding us. Currently, conversations about vaccine and mask mandates, as well as the ethics of global vaccine distribution, highlight the tension between our individual experience and a collective call. How many refugees a given country will take positions one set of people against another, and climate change highlights the way our world is interconnected.
In her recent piece, “’Personal Choice’ Won’t Stop The Climate Crisis. Join A Movement Instead,” my friend and teacher Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman demonstrates the ways in which a collective conscience and individual action can be mutually reinforcing. Rabbi Friedman urges us to commit to collective action by supporting youth-led climate movements. She also elevates the way in which individual action can help cultivate the conditions for a collective response: “When my family brings glass containers for take-out or saves up for an electric car, we don’t do it because it changes the world. We do it because it changes us. Buying local, insulating, forgoing plane trips, eating less meat, and the like build our integrity and our relationships. They make for more resilient communities. They are the baby sprouts of a more life-affirming, sustainable society.”
One of the things about our world that pains me the most is that we do not seem to have a collective understanding of what it means to build a more just and equitable world, what it means for all people to live lives of dignity, and what it means to value human life. It would be easy to say that the ancient Israelites had it easier, but we know from the prophets that they will forsake this covenant.
The truth is that my family is at its best when we have a clear sense of our meal plan and various responsibilities. And I’m not sure what to make about the lack of global understanding, even about the simplest truths, that seems to permeate our news cycle. I do know that Jewish tradition is a foundation from which we can “stand firmly and powerfully, with energetic perseverance” (Hirsch on Deuteronomy 29:9). The Torah provides a framework for valuing our individual lives, the lives of our various communities, and the earth we live in. Our daily liturgy offers us the possibility of reconnecting to our covenant with God and each other and our yearly calendar deepens our human experience by calling attention to different aspects of our humanity.
This Rosh Hashanah, may the sound of the shofar awaken us to the possibility of the moment, and as we celebrate the re-coronation of God as king, may we reaffirm our presence in a covenant with the divine and our commitment to living into that covenant. May we commit הַיּוֹם (today) and every day to stand confidently as ourselves, look out at the world, and do the best we can for ourselves and each other.
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