Community Development

Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Nitzavim/Va'yalekh
Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30
September 11, 2004    25 Elul 5764

After a nightmare of national calamities, enlightenment will set in. That is Moses's final assurance. The cascade of curses will not rupture the covenant. In exile, the nation will eventually come to realize that its disobedience to God brought about its own downfall. A spirit of contrition will then spring from this insight culminating in reconciliation. And God will respond forgivingly by restoring the people to its homeland. "Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you" (30:3).

But what makes the author of Deuteronomy so sure that the people of Israel will remain faithful and united in exile, longingly awaiting its redemption? Deported nations in antiquity tended to disintegrate and disappear. In 722 B.C.E. the Northern Kingdom of Samaria fell to the Assyrians who promptly deported its inhabitants to the far corners of their empire. Population transfers were meant to crush resistance by destroying national identity. In the case of the Israelites of the north, the strategy worked. The ten tribes were never heard from again. Would the fate of the Israelites of the south in the Kingdom of Judah after 586 B.C.E. be any different? How would they withstand their demoralization at the sight of the Babylonians burning their Temple, the most sacred site in the land and the only licit place for offering sacrifices?

The astonishing fact is that, in contrast to their northern brethren, the inhabitants of Judah did not lose their national and religious identity in exile. Some 42,000 of them would return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C.E. in the wake of the decree by the Persian emperor Cyrus who offered to rebuild the Temple and restore its cultic treasures. Those remnants of Judah formed the link between the first and second Temples in Jerusalem (finished in 516 B.C.E.) and bestowed their name Yehudi, Jew upon us, their descendants.

In his comment on 30:3, Rashi cites a profound midrash that turns on a slight grammatical problem. The Hebrew verb for restore ("God will restore your fortunes") is intransitive rather than transitive, meaning that "God will come back with you out of captivity." The English translation treats the Hebrew phrase ve-shav et shevutkha as an idiom, hence "God will restore your fortunes;" the Rabbis however read it literally, that is intransitively. In Rashi's elliptic paraphrase; "From this verse our sages learned that God's presence (shekhina) dwelled with Israel in the torment of its exile. And when they were redeemed, it is as if God ordered redemption for Himself, that He would return with them" (original in the Mekhilta, ed. Horovitz-Rabin, pp. 51-52). The midrash is a magnificent expression of divine pathos. God's anger does not overwhelm God's compassion. Not only does God accompany Israel into exile, but God is diminished thereby, in need of self-redemption. God suffers along with Israel.

It is that adjustment in Jewish theology that made God accessible inside and outside the Temple. Its prominence in the book of Deuteronomy and under the late Davidic monarchy was not allowed to preclude worshipping God anywhere on earth. But to make Judaism portable and sustainable, theology had first to become actual. The main lineaments of a Judaism without Temples or homeland was famously caught by Simon the Righteous, who as both Temple high priest and rabbinic precursor stood in the midst of the transition underway. He contended cryptically that the Judaism in formation, rested on three pillars: "on the Torah, on worship and on deeds of love" (Pirkei Avot 1:2).

In truth, I prefer the organic image of a tree with two branches to three inert and inanimate pillars. But the lineaments are correct. The trunk of the tree is the Torah, the inviolable written constitution of a religious nation. The collection, editing and canonization of the Torah (not the Tanakh), in the century following the first Temple's destruction enabled Judaism to begin its momentous shift from sacred space to sacred book. For the first time ever, a religion based itself on a book to be made exoteric through public readings and pliable through unending interpretation. Judaism ceased to be land bound.

Two formidable branches grew from that trunk which went on to define the totality of the religious life of the individual and the community. Avodah encompassed not only prayer but the vast class of mitzvot that helps us experience God's presence in the quotidian flow of our lives. By the same token, gemilut hasadim codified the infinite ways we might improve the lot of humanity by relating fairly and sensitively to the other. Immersion in the study of Torah would ultimately yield a way of life marked by morality and holiness.

Still more concretely, worship in Judaism required a quorum, traditionally a minyan of adult males. I know of no other religion with a similar bar for its religious services. To read the Torah, to recite kaddish or to perform a marriage, we need a minyan. That singular requirement compelled Jews to settle collectively and build community. Thus typically, it was a total of 23 refugees from Brazil who arrived in New Amsterdam in September 1654 seeking entry to the Dutch colony. Jews tended not to migrate alone for religious reasons. Though at first they were not granted the right to worship publicly, they could conduct their services in the privacy of their homes.

Similarly concrete, the general obligation to perform deeds of love translated itself into the halakhic principle that "all Jews are responsible for one another" (BT Shevuot 39a). It was that prescription that encouraged Jews throughout the Middle Ages to form welfare associations to provide assistance to their less fortunate co-religionists. Their self-sufficiency made Jews less of a burden to their host society and therefore more desirable. Again typically, when the Dutch West India Company granted the Jews from Recife admission to settle and trade in New Amsterdam, it demanded that "the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation" (Sarna, American Judaism, p. 2).

In sum, Jews awaited redemption from exile pro-actively, not as fanatic messianists but as zealous institution builders. To fulfill their religious obligations, Jews had to organize themselves. Living on the margin of the body politic, Jews created a surrogate polity that sustained them physically, economically and spiritually. In the modern period, after they were finally admitted to the body politic, they did not dismantle their organized community but refashioned it. In the process, they made their greatest political contribution to American democracy, the right to be different as a group. Cultural pluralism, as expounded by the Jewish thinker Horace Kallen, heralded the metaphor of an orchestra rather than the melting pot. Instead of insisting on the sameness of its citizens, democracy should welcome their diversity, creating "a union of the different."

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Nitzavim/Va'yalekh are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.