Nitzavim: Nowhere Too Far

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

It’s late in Elul, the season for the Children of Israel to
be doing cheshbon hanesh [“soul-accounting”], which not coincidentally
is the season for rabbis to be stressing out over the Days of Awe,
fast approaching. . . but not this rabbi, who has transcended mere
stress by elevating himself into an entirely different realm, an
almost meditational state of last-minute preparations.

On the other hand, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is not about
last minute details; in fact, it’s about wrapping up a project that
took 40 years to complete, which is of course the sojourn from Egypt
to the Land of Israel. The book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy reaches
rhetorical heights as Moshe exhorts the people to stay faithful to God
and covenant in the new land- but also makes a prophecy that someday
they will stray from covenant and be taken into exile. This image
seems both very literal and also a metaphor for the state of
estrangement between the people and God which will inevitably unfold.
Moshe encourages the people with a great faith that God will bring
them back in love; “returning” to God includes the promise that God
will “bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord
your God has scattered you.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:3)

This promise, of being brought back from among the nations, is an
enduring idea in Jewish thought, and certainly helped keep Jews
faithful to the idea of a restoration in the Land of Israel. Jeffrey
Tigay, in the comprehensive commentary produced by the Jewish
Publication Society (JPS), points out that this verse is alluded to
in the modern prayer for the State of Israel, recited in many
synagogues, which includes the theme of gathering the exiles. Tigay
also suggests that the image of God gathering or returning people is
an ancient one, and shows up in other places:

“God’s ability to retrieve people from anywhere was apparently
proverbial. It is alluded to, with reference to fugitives, in Amos
9:2-3: ‘if they burrow down to Sheol [the realm of the dead], from
there My hand shall take them, and if they ascend to heaven, from
there I will bring them down; if they hide on the top of Carmel, there
I will search them out and seize them.’ ” (JPS Torah Commentary,
Deuteronomy, p. 284).

This idea also calls to mind other famous texts from the Torah,
including the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the prophet Jonah’s
inability to escape his mission, which we read on the afternoon of Yom
Kippur.

Leaving aside theological paradoxes associated with a Being of spirit
omnipresent in material space, what appeals to me about the verses
from Nitzavim is their essential hopefulness. To a people suffering in
exile, Moshe’s message continued to inspire the faith needed to combat
despair. To an individual who feels alienated, lost, or frustrated in
attempts to connect with God, Torah or the Jewish people, the message
is equally clear: there’s a way back to a place of hope, blessing and
feeling at home in the world. Our journeys take us far from our roots,
but Nitzavim reminds us: you are never so far from the root of your
own soul that you can’t return and be whole again. You might be
“scattered among the peoples,” that is, spiritually distant from a
place of peace and strength and purpose and vision, but as our verse
implies, maybe the returning is essential to the learning.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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