With life and death as particularly appropriate themes for this season, I would like to share some thoughts about parshat Nitzavim, the first of the two Torah portions which we read in synagogue yesterday.
Nitzavim is the perfect segue to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which explains why this parsha is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana!
To begin with, it’s worth noting that what is not found in our Torah is a preoccupation with death. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, were very focused on death. Their monumental buildings were an attempt to defy death. The pyramids were giant mausoleums. More precisely, they were portals through which the soul of a deceased pharaoh – the Egyptians believed - could ascend to heaven and join the immortals. Predictably, the most famous Egyptian text that has come down to us is The Book of the Dead. Only the afterlife is real in Egyptian theology: life is merely a preparation for death.
There is nothing like that in our Torah. Jewish tradition surely includes a belief in olam haba, the world to come, i.e. life after death, and a belief in techiyat hamaytim, the resurrection of the dead. In fact, there are several references to the latter in the second paragraph of the Amidah and in the last line of the hymn of Yigdal.
These concepts, however, are almost completely absent from the Tanakh, from the full canon of our Bible. Why is that?
The answer is that obsession with death ultimately devalues life. That’s why “No one knows where Moses is buried” as it says in Deut. 34:6: וְלֹא-יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת-קְבֻרָתוֹ, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, no one knows where his grave is, so that his tomb should never become a place of pilgrimage and worship. That’s why in place of a pyramid or a temple such as Ramses II built at Abu Simbel, all the Israelites had for almost 500 years - until the days of King Solomon - was the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary, actually more like a tent than a temple. Repeatedly, we find the theme of Gd not being associated with death, but rather with life.
It is in this contrast with Egyptian tradition that we can feel the drama behind words that have become so familiar to us, the great words in which Moses framed the choice for all time:
הַעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֒רֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה
וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ See, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your children may live”.
Can we “defy” death? The answer lies in a form of immortality - which I think we all seek in one way or another. Judaism, as we noted, believes in an afterlife. But Moses teaches us a very different approach. He tells us that we achieve immortality by being part of a covenant – a covenant with eternity itself, that is to say, a covenant with Gd.
When we live our lives within a covenant, something extraordinary happens. Our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents live on in us. We, in turn, live on in our children and in our grandchildren and in all the generations that will follow. They are part of our life. We are part of theirs. That’s what Moses meant when he said, near the beginning of this week’s parsha:
“It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this oath, but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our Gd, as well as those not with us here today”. (Deut. 29:13-14) וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם What Moses meant in a larger sense is that when we renew the covenant, when we dedicate our lives to the faith and to the way of life of our ancestors, they become immortal in us, as we become immortal in our children, and in all those whose lives we touch.
Indeed, children are our immortality. That’s what Rachel meant when she said, “Give me children, or else I am like one who is dead” (Gen. 30:1). That’s what Abraham meant when he said, “Lord, Gd, what will you give me if I remain childless?” (Gen. 15:2). We are not all destined, however, to have children, biologically. The rabbis tell us that the good we do constitutes our toldot, our posterity.
Therefore by teaching children – our own, or our grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, or our friends’ children - to continue the traditions of our beloved Judaism, we achieve a form of immortality.
We now sense the full force of the drama of these last days of Moses’ life. Moses knew he was about to die, he knew he would not cross the Jordan and enter the land he had spent his entire adult life leading the people towards. Moses, confronting his own mortality, asks us in every generation to confront ours.
Our faith – Moses is telling us – is not like that of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or virtually any other civilization known to history. We do not find Gd in a realm beyond life – in heaven, or after death, or in some mystic disengagement from the world, or in a philosophical contemplation. We find Gd in life. We find Gd in love. We find Gd in joy. To find Gd, it says in this week’s parsha, you don’t have to climb to heaven or cross the sea (Deut. 30:12-13). Gd is here. Gd is now. Gd is life.
And so Moses, the greatest leader we ever had, became immortal by making us his disciples. As we are taught to do, in one of the first recorded instructions from our rabbis, in Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Forebears: “Raise up many disciples”.
In conclusion, then, to make a difference, all we need to do is to write our chapter in the story, all we need to do is to do deeds that heal some of the pain of this world, and all we need to do is to act so that others become enriched for having known us. Our charge is to live so that, through us, our ancient covenant with Gd is renewed in the only way that matters: in life. Moses’ last testament to us at the very end of his days, when his mind might so easily have turned to death, was: “Choose life”.
In that spirit, it is my prayer that each of us will be written and sealed in the Book of Life - - for a life of good health, for a life of meaning, for a life of peace, for a life which includes the opportunity to make a difference, for a life of growth and of greater understanding, and for a life, above all, which brings honor to the Creator of us all, to our Eternal Gd. May we merit to be Gd’s partners - now and for eternity - - and let us say Amen.
Rabbi Marge Wise
Please stay tuned for additional Wise Words!