This week’s Torah portion is an emphatic demand for Jewish unity around the eternal Jewish purpose that we call the covenant. It comes as the entire Jewish people assembles to hear the parting words of Moses; it was, says Rashi, Moses’s dying day, his farewell address to the nation.
The drama increases when we realize that the speech occurs as the Israelites finally reach the destination for which they have been bound since Egypt: the Land of Israel. They are not all that far from where Abraham himself first set foot upon the place. Abraham was promised progeny as numerous as the stars above his head and the sand beneath his feet. The progeny have returned.
“You stand” (atem nitzavim), says Moses, “all of you, to enter the covenant of Adonai your God.” According to the Maharal, God waits to confirm the covenant until Israel has reached its Land, because only the Land has power to bring all Jews together around the covenant’s demands. It alone can consolidate the Jewish people around the covenantal vision that will mark Jewish life forever.
The word “stand” (nitzavim) reminds us of Psalm 82:1, where it is used similarly of God. “Adonai stands (nitzav) in the divine council (adat el) to do justice.” Ibn Ezra identifies this “divine council” as Israel, God’s people who are charged with justice. God and Israel stand together then, on this: the search for justice as the essence in the human march through history. We, Israel, stand up together, “all of us” to confirm the covenant. God stands up with us to confirm that the covenant we enact is devoted to the decency and nobility whence all justice flows.
This commitment to decency and nobility is the sine qua non of the Jewish project from Sinai until now, and if the Maharal is right, it is the very presence in our Land that is supposed to unify us around it.
That is hardly the situation, however. Jews have never been united on matters concerning the Jewish state. To use a rabbinic idiom, Lo hayah v’lo nivra, it just never was the case. From the first Zionist Congress on, Jews argued over the society they were building. But despite all disagreements, one reads the Zionist record with pride in the level of discussion. Our Zionist forebears did indeed argue vigorously — but almost without exception, it was with visionary passion for a Jewish state that stood for decency and nobility.
By contrast, a passion for decency and nobility hardly characterizes Israel’s leadership today. The squabbles that make and break the Knesset coalitions are purely political: the self-serving pursuit of power, which is to say doing what one can rather than what one should. In addition, so many Israeli politicians have abused the public trust. A 2005 study measured the extent to which people associate their government with corruption. Of the 18 countries surveyed, Israel topped the list in discontent!
It is not just politics that deepens suspicions of moral decay. We are also becoming more and more accustomed to outrageously indecent pronouncements from extremist circles in Israel. Diaspora Jews can hardly clean up Israeli politics, but we can shout to the rooftops when patent racism and inequality are preached as if they were Judaism. Our haftara this week proclaims, “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still.” The speaker of these lines is variously identified as Israel or as God — both of us stand together, after all; both of us should be standing up for decency. I suspect God is, but are we? Jews need not agree on everything, but almost universally, we all do recognize and despise blatant racism, for example. We should be saying so.
The divine council of Psalm 82 is a virtual thing, Jewish voices everywhere protesting the need (again from Psalm 82) “to defend the weak and fatherless, vindicate the afflicted and the poor, rescue the weak and the poor from the grip of the wicked.” On Rosh Hashana, just around the corner, say the rabbis, “all who come into the world” (kol ba’ei olam) stand before God in judgment. We are all God’s people. We are charged with decency to all. If “we stand here this day,” we will stand here again come Rosh Hashana — with God at our side to ask if we are worthy of the covenant. If we do not speak up for a Judaism that values elemental human decency, the answer will be “No.”