Nitzavim-Vayelekh: A Conditional Promise

Nitzavim is read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana and together with the parsha following it, Vayelekh, it contains some of the most significant passages relating to the children of Israel becoming a nation. Our parasha tells us that Israel is unlike any other nation on earth and that the Israelites are not to follow the path of other nations. And, if the tradition of reading this passage at this time is any guide, we can determine that our status as a people becoming a nation is inextricable from the concept of tshuva, often translated as “repentance”.

In the 20th century, scholars of the Bible developed a theory that the Bible was a compilation of texts written by several authors, even schools, at different points in ancient history. By extrapolating the “sources” of biblical material, scholars could reflect and better understand the worldview that informed the text. Biblical source critics advanced the idea that this portion of Deuteronomy (along with most other sections of the book) was originally the work of someone living many centuries later than the events depicted. Not only were these passages not written by Moses himself, they were written by an author in Judah after the fall of the northern kingdom, long after the Israelite conquest of the land, the reign of King David, and after the Israelites had been forced into humiliating exile in Babylon. The authors of Deuteronomy were writing for a skeptical audience that had experienced the tragedy of forced displacement, misfortune, and as they would put it — God’s disfavor. The story when placed in its ancient context is about forgoing our arrogance, complacence, and entitlement. It is about hope after being brought low and facing the hard lessons that brought about defeat. To be clear, the text highlights the fact that God still favors Israel and repentance is still possible, but the biblical promise of a fecund land flowing with milk and honey is conditional on responsible behavior.

Because Zionism has meshed so thoroughly with our contemporary understandings of Judaism, many of us forget that the biblical story has a trajectory that does not end with the Israelites conquering the land, but instead with their expulsion. When I was in Palestine this summer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, I attended a learning session with Rabbi David Cooper, who taught passages in the Torah that emphasized the covenant as provisional on respecting the rights of all the land’s inhabitants. The biblical promise, Rabbi Cooper argued, is for a multicultural homeland, not a “property deed” for Jews, as the right wing view asserts. One participant in our session asked how it was possible to accept Rabbi Cooper’s view, given that the Israelites commit terrible crimes while conquering the land that seem to go unquestioned in the text, some of which could be characterized as genocidal. What this participant misunderstood, in my view, is that the conquest represents the middle of the story — not the part that we’re expected to recognize as our contemporary condition.

Moses describes the curse God will bring to the land if the generations who come after follow “other gods”: “…the whole land is brimstone and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor bears, nor any grass grows on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and in his wrath” (Deuteronomy. 29:22).

Perhaps unlike the ancient Israelites, we don’t adopt pagan rituals or set up altars to gods made of wood and stone, but the extreme arrogance of our institutions about Jewish entitlement to the land, the way they brush off the humanity of Palestinians and erase their stories from our view, is a modern form of idolatry. It is upon people like us to shake our community out of its sleep and push it towards a new course.

Reflecting on Deuteronomy 30: 1–3, Yeshayahu Leibowitz points out in his essay on this parasha that the text employs four similar terms, all derived from or related to the root shin-vav-bet, which holds the plain meaning “to return to something.” He writes: “You will take — vahasheivota — to heart’ (what you have done and what befell you), and ‘you will return — veshavta — to the Lord your God’ and the Lord your God will bring back — veshav — your captives — shevutekha.” The concepts of taking to heart, returning, bringing back, and captivity have an intricate relationship to one another.

As we enter the High Holiday season, let us begin the process of reexamining our perceptions that seemed before to be ineluctable. Let us think broadly about what justice might look like. Let us take to heart the ways in which the expulsion and continued degradation of the Palestinians prevents us from fully returning, even as we dominate the land. It is only when we humbly take this to heart that we can be made whole.

Shabbat shalom.

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