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Parashat Hashavua Nitzavim 2013 / 5773 - You Stand This Day, All of You, Before the Lord Your God: Class, Equality, and the Covenant

26.08.2013 by

This week, we begin the final section of the Torah; in a few parshas it will be over. It is the last day of Moshe's life. His leadership of the Jewish people is at an end,  Joshua has been chosen to succeed him, and Moshe is now close to desperate in his concern for the future of the Jewish people once he is gone. As he has done throughout the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), he again and again warns them against failing to live up to their covenant with God, outlining for them the punishments they will suffer if, as he suspects  will happen, they are unfaithful to God and His Torah.

The first of the two parshas we read this week, Nitzavim (the second is Va'yelech), begins with these words: אתם נצבים היום כלכם לפני ה' אלוקיכם ראשיכם שבטיכם זקניכם ושטריכם כל איש ישראל. טפכם נשיכם וגרך אשר בקרב מחניך מחטב עציך עד שאב מימיך.  "You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God, the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel. Your children, your wives, the stranger who dwells in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. To bring you into the covenant with the Lord your God and his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day."

On his last day on earth, Moshe convenes the entire nation in order to, once agin, have them hear and accept the brit, the covenant with God, which will make them His people, and bring His blessings and love upon them. It is striking that the covenant is made with the entire communty, from the leaders, elders, officers, and "all the men of Israel", to the women, children, and lowliest of newcomers to the nation (the Rabbis understand that these "hewers of wood and drawers of water" were some sort of less than trustworthy converts to Judaism, who, though relegated to a lowly station in life, were accepted as Jews and are being asked here, along with everyone else, to reaffirm them commitment to the covenant.) Though many of us may feel uncomfortable with the clear distinctions being made between the leadership class, together with all the men of Israel, mentioned in the first verse, and the children, women, and strangers in the second, we can not lose sight of how inclusive this covenant ultimately is. Though the nation is divided by power, class, age, and gender, these distinctions seem irrelevant in the face of the unity they experience as they all stand together as one to reaffirm their relationship with God, His Torah, and Jewish history. 

And yet, one is tempted to ask: if the Torah is so egalitarian and foward-looking in its inclusion of people who in many other societies are excluded from the nation's crucial decisions, rites, responsibilities, and rituals, why does the parsha buy into the stratified kind of society we see here, in which the elders, the powerful, the native-born men are at the top of the pyramid, while the women, children, and "strangers" are at the bottom, hewing wood and drawing water? The fact that the Torah doesn't go that one step further, and more radically negate these class distinctions, this apparent chauvinism and xenophobia, is frustrating.

In the Torah's "defense", I would point out that, for the bulk of human history, women were not seen as men's equals for reasons which I feel were, at the time,  valid. Before the advent of modern medicine, technology, and appliances, women really were burdened by the raising of their children in ways that called for a division of labor which invariably limited their ability to function as fully independent adults and citizens. Happily, we live in the modern world, where technology and science have ameliorated many of the burdens of motherhood, allowing us to be more egalitarian than the Torah, as forward-looking as it is here in terms of its theological inclusivity, could be.

Bt there is another point to be made. As democratic and inclusive as the Torah is in terms of the covenant, it also, at the same time, is upholding the basic notion of hierarchy. The Torah is not advocating anarchy, or a totally equal society, in which no one is more privileged than anyone else. Rather, it is doing what the Torah, and Judaism, so often does: it seeks a middle ground. While accepting, perhaps even validating, a society in which there are leaders and followers, privileged and less privileged, insiders and outsiders, it also, ultimately, gives everyone full rights where it really counts: they are all equal participants in the Jewish people's covenant with God. Though circumstances at any given time may call for a specific kind of hierarchy, the existence of that hierarchy does not erase in any way the essential humanity, and worth, of those at the bottom of it. The Torah, as it so often does, is recognizing the neccessity of a less than perfect, but appropriate for its time, social order, while laying the legal and conceptual groundwork for improving it when the historical opportunity presents itself. Though women, and the poor strangers, are certainly removed from the centers of power and influence in the society described here, arguably for good, or at least neccessary reasons, their inclusion as full members of the covenant, as  people whose participation in the Jewish relationship with God is as important as that of the ruling class, paves the way for their fuller inclusion, ultimately,  in all aspects of society, once the situation makes that feasible.

By addressing the women, children, and foreign-born working class together with the upper classes, Moshe is making it clear that they all are equally important to God and His plan. By asking them to join him in reaffirming their commitment to the covenant, Moshe makes their oppressed state transitory: it is inconceivable that people with a full relationship with God, who are full members of the Jewish people, will, forever, be less than full members of Jewish society. By having the women, the working class, the stranger, stand together with the ruling class on this important occasion, Moshe is guaranteeing that they will not be second-class citizens forever. He is inviting us to see beyond the specific economic and social realities which lead to their oppression and exclusion,  their reduced status, and start seeing them as who they really are: our equals before God.

Shabbat Shalom,Rabbi Shimon Felix

Though the nation is divided by power, class, and gender, these distinctions seem irrelevant as they all stand together before God Rabbi Shimon

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