Nitzavim: we are our own matzevah, sign of a covenant that we cannot fully understand

Just before the famous opening words of parashat Nitzavim, we see Moses speaking “el col Yisrael” – to all Israel, reminding them that they had seen everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the people in Egypt, had seen the great trials, signs and wonders, but that God had not given them a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear until right now.

He then goes into a strange excursus, telling them that “I led you for forty years in the wilderness, your clothes did not grow old nor did your shoes wear out, you have not eaten bread nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that “I am the Eternal your God”.

He speaks of the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, of how they battled against the Israelites but were defeated, their land given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. And so he tells them to observe the words of this covenant and do them, in order that they be successful in all they will do.

So ends the sidra before, and the division is both dramatically powerful and problematically distracting.  Nitzavim begins “You (pl) are standing this day ALL OF YOU, before the Eternal your God – your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers all, a man (sing) of Israel. Your children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. For your passing over into the covenant of the Eternal your God, and its conditions, which the eternal your God is making with you today, in order to establish you today for himself for a people, and he will be for you a God, as he said to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ”

The image of everyone being present in order to enter into a covenant with God, where all the people would become God’s people and God would have a particular relationship of covenantal obligation with them is hugely appealing. It is made the more so when we see the list of people who will become part of this unbreakable relationship of covenant –from the highest status men of office through to each individual (man), then children, women, strangers who have become part of the group in some way, and finally the most menial labourers often invisible to the rest of society. Leaving aside the androcentric society of bible for a moment, we see a real equality in the covenant – it doesn’t matter your gender or your status, whether you are Israelite or resident stranger, your position as regards the covenant with God is the same.

So lovely is this thought that it is easy to not notice other nudges in the text. The elision of Moses and God is deeply problematic to me – not only does he tell the people that this is a moment of revelation which had been hidden for the previous forty years because God had not given them the abilities to perceive what most of their lives had been about, he also doesn’t seem to be quoting God so much as claiming God’s role.  While the presence of the people, all of the people, is accentuated in this text, so that Moses tells them that not only those present that day but also those who were not present that day (understood in tradition to be both all the future descendants of the people present, and also all who would enter the covenant via conversion to Judaism), the presence of God is harder to ascertain. Moses seems to stand in for God at the introduction of this covenant. And after the fearsome predictions of what would happen in both this and future generations when the people will forsake God and in turn be forsaken, along with the land, we are told “the secret/ hidden things belong to the Eternal our God, but what is revealed belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this torah/teaching”

There is a play about hidden and revealed going on in this text, made explicit at the beginning and end of the chapter, and this makes all the more dangerous the signing up to a covenant which cannot be fully understood.

As if to underline this play of hiding/revealing in the context of a treaty or covenant, the text nudges us to two other biblical narratives, neither of which comforts us.

Firstly is the phrase “atem nitzavim”  coming from the Hebrew root yod tzadi beit, it is in the niphal (reflexive) form meaning not so much standing as “you are setting yourselves up” or “taking one’s stand”.  It is a curious phrase, and it causes us to think of other uses of the root – more often found as the noun form of ‘matzevah”. The first time we meet the word is after the dream of the ladder when the young Jacob realises that he has met God, he rises early in the morning, takes the stone he had put under his head the night before, sets it up as a pillar (matzevah) and pours oil over it in a religious ritual, vowing “If God will be with me, will keep me on this way that I go, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I will be able to return to my father’s house in peace, THEN will the Eternal be my God, and this stone, that I have set up as a pillar (matzevah) will be the house of God….”(Gen 28:18-22)

Later, when Jacob is about to return to his homeland and has to negotiate his leaving with his father in law Laban, Laban tells him  “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you.’ So Jacob takes a stone and raises it for a matzevah (Gen 31:44,45)

The original use of the word matzevah seems to be not just an upstanding stone to mark a place, but a physical marker of a covenant that is being made.

Moses uses the word differently though – “Atem Nitzavim” may legitimately be translated as: “You are standing”, but it has echoes of more than physically being on one’s feet – it means “you are setting yourselves up as a matzevah, you are physically yourselves the sign of the covenant that is being made between yourselves and God”

The second nudge is the phrase translated as “from hewers of wood to drawers of water”.  Besides the fact that there is little difference at the very bottom of the social scale being a hewer of wood or a drawer of water it is referring to those who  are using brute strength to service the society which will barely notice their efforts (though it will most certainly notice if they stop).

The phrase is not common – apart from here it appears in the Book of Joshua (chapter 9) which recounts a covenant that is not what it seems.  Once again the Amorite Kings  Sihon of Heshbon, and  Og king of Bashan are referenced, this time their defeat has led other inhabitants (the Hivites or Gibeonites both appear in this role) to dress in worn out clothing, with worn shoes and stale bread and patched wine skins (more resonances to the passage here in Deuteronomy) and pose as being travellers from a distant land who have heard of the acts of God done in Egypt and who have come to this land in order to meet these people of God and to make a treaty so as to live together with them in peace.  The Israelites are flattered, they take the food and wine that are offered, and critically they do not “take counsel from the Eternal”. After three days of covenant making/celebrating,  Joshua and the Israelites find that the people were not who they had said they were, but were long term inhabitants of the land and were now protected from the oncoming Israelites by treaty. In response to their having lied, and to their protected status, Joshua  acknowledged that they would live, but he curses them – they are to be bondmen to the Israelites, in particular “there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.’

There are too many echoes in this tale from the Book of Joshua.  As we are told there is “no before and no after in torah” one has to read each story in the light of the other.  So when Moses alludes to the covenant being made on the edge of the land, the covenant between God and the people, he is warning them both that covenants can be made without full knowledge, that some things may only come to light later, that ultimately we take things on trust and sometimes that trust is misplaced.

Sometimes too the upshot of not knowing something can be of real disbenefit, sometimes we can live with it sometimes it is hard to live with.

But we are ourselves the matzevah, we have set ourselves up for this covenant and we are the physical signs of its existence. We are so intertwined – our lives, our very selves are part of the covenant – that we can never free ourselves of it. We are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the people who keep society going with tasks that are not honoured but are honourable.  We are also the people who take a leap in the dark with God, who retain trust even when there is no obvious reason to do so.

Nowadays we use the word matzevah to mean a tomb stone, the marker of a body that rests in the earth having finished its tasks in life.  It provides solidity, certainty, finality.  But I do like the idea of the matzevah that is the living human being, the one that is uncertain, ongoing, working in the dark to some extent, living in hope.  As we enter the Days of Awe, the days of risk, of trying to make ourselves our best selves, the days when we wonder what God thinks of us, being a living matzevah, a living sign of the covenant between us and God must surely be a powerful sign and reminder we have trusted God all these years, and we hope to have reason to trust as we journey into the future.

image the stone said to be Lot’s wife in Sdom from wikimedia

Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Nitzavim – standing together, united in our diversity

Parshah Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. In part that is fortuitous – a wrinkle of the calendrical cycle.  

In part though there is a deeper connection, because it reminds us that all the people will indeed be standing together in the presence of God during the Yamim Noraim; and in part, I think the reason is because the importance of this speech of Moses – it is one that is critical for the people – Do not forget where you come from, what you are called to do, what you will have to give an account of. And do not forget that you are one people.

The unity of the Jewish people, standing together, all voices being heard from the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest – choose any spectrum you like – ALL the Jewish people are, says Moses, “Nitzavim, Culchem” – standing present, all of us. We are all part of the whole; each of us has a role to play and a gift to give. Tradition teaches that everyone who will ever become a Jew also stood at Sinai – we too were there, accepting the covenant and agreeing to its obligations.

So the unity of the Jewish people is paramount, in prayer during the Yamim Noraim all of us should be there. However sinful we may feel ourselves (or others) to be, our liturgy calls us all together to pray in one community.  And the unity of the Jewish people is paramount in memory and mission – in how we fulfil what we are called to do. Tragically it seems to me that this unity is unravelling in so many ways. Many Jews feel less and less bound to the community, less willing to give the time or the thought that is needed to help them and the community thrive. And many Jews feel out of sorts with the community – be it defined as the establishment, the synagogue, the State of Israel, the traditions, the rituals, the beliefs or behaviours of other Jews.

I think we all have reservations about what it means to be one people. We all wonder why, in hard pressed times, we are expected to give so much of ourselves. We look at other sectors of the community and shake our heads. I for one find the hareidisation of Judaism horrifying, others of course will find the feminising of Judaism equally odd.  In Israel there is a growing gulf between the dati’im (observant of all the legalities) and the hilonim (secular Jews whose identity is Israeli)  The issue is, how to we still live with each other – how do we find the common ground of the covenant made at Sinai and stand, all of us together?  How to we make a bridge or a series of connections that allow us to stay one people without all having to bend to one common denominator, but instead allow our diversity to be one of the values we cherish? Nitzvavim reminds us we are all there – from the leaders of the community to the most menial, men, women and children. Diversity is built into our unity. Now we need to work at building unity from our diversity.