“An Exclusive Covenant with an Inclusive Philosophy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we encounter Moshe on the last day of his life. Moshe has gathered all the Jewish people from the lowliest to the most exalted, old, young, men, women, and brings them into the final covenant with G-d. This covenant is a covenant of a’ray’vut, the covenant reflecting the sense of responsibility of one Jew for the other.

Moshe says to the Jewish people, Deut. 29:9, “Ah’tem nee’tzavim ha’yom kul’chem lif’nay Hashem Elo’kaychem, ra’shay’chem, shif’tay’chem, zik’nay’chem v’shoftay’chem, kol eesh Yis’rael,” You are standing today before the Lord, your G-d, the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers–all the men of Israel. Your small children, and your wives, and the proselytes who are within your camp, from your woodchoppers to your waterdrawers. For you to enter into the covenant of the Lord, your G-d, and His oath which the Lord, your G-d, is sealing with you today. In order to establish you today as His people and that He be your G-d, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers–to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not with you alone do I form this covenant and seal this oath. But, with those who are here standing with us today before the Lord, our G-d, and with those who are not here today.

These bold verses still dramatically reverberate with us today, as if they are being pronounced before the people of Israel at this very moment.

In the name of G-d, Moshe says: “Ah’tem nee’tzavim ha’yom kul’chem lif’nay Hashem Elo’kaychem,” You are standing here today, all of you, before the Lord your G-d! “Ah’tem,” This covenant is not being exacted only with the nobility. There is no nobility here, and there can be no representatives or proxies before G-d. This is not meant to be a gathering of Priests or Prophets or Holy People. This covenant is not to be concluded with only those of privileged birth or of exalted spirit. Judaism, after all, is not a sect or a cult. This covenant is meant for the entire people of Israel. It is an unprecedented act in human history, and in the history of religions, that all the people of Israel, without regard to gender, age,  or status, from the leaders to the water drawers, are welcomed into this covenant.

Not only is this covenant historic in that it is totally inclusive of all those who are present at this time, but it actually transcends time to include past, present and future members of Israel. Verse 14,“Ke et ah’sher yesh’no po ee’manu o’med ha’yom lif’nay Hashem E’lo’kaynu, v’et asher ay’neh’nu po ee’manu ha’yom.” Not only does G-d seal this covenant with you who stand here with us today before the Lord, our G-d, but also with all those who are not here with us today!

At this critical juncture in Jewish history, and from this crucial vantage point of Jewish destiny, not only are all the tribes of Israel joined together, but all the generations are seen as if they are standing before the Lord, our G-d. At this singular moment, we stand together as one Jewish people, past, present and future.

Yes, this is to be an all-embracing covenant, to be executed with the entire people, with those who are with us and those who are not with us. And yet, for G-d, even this is not enough. It must be even more inclusive. Not only is this covenant intended for those who are not with us in time, but even for those who are not with us in spirit, in thought, in mind and in belief. It includes even those who say: We do not want any part of this covenant today, Ha’yom. This is not for us. We seek alternative religious experiences. We are off to the Himalayas, to our personal Gurus, to the Ashram. We reject your concept of Heaven, we relate only to Earth. We relate only to the Heavens, to the metaphysical, and we reject your concept of Earth. But, for G-d, it is Ha’yom, only today. G-d knows that these attitudes cannot and will not be permanent. With time, with love and with infinite patience, it can change.

From this covenant, which Moshe exacted with the people of Israel in Arvot Moav, in the wilderness of Moab, with the G-d of Israel, with the G-d of reality, with the G-d of existence, no one is excluded. Everyone is here.

It is with this same sense of inclusiveness that we begin our preparations for the High Holidays. As we read in the introductory meditation for the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur night, “Bee’shee’vah shel ma’a’la,” By the authority of the heavenly court, by the authority of the earthy court, with the consent of the Omnipotent one, and with the consent of this congregation, we declare it lawful to pray with the sinners. This exclusive covenant is totally inclusive, anyone wishing to be part of it is welcome to join.

It is during this time of year that we must think about the myriads of Jews who are estranged from Judaism, who consider themselves outside the covenant. Yes, our grandparents prayed for a “Melting Pot” in America, but they got a “meltdown” instead. However, we dare not write off any Jew, and we dare not give up hope on our brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters. As we read the prophetic words in Deut. 30:4 of this week’s parasha, “Im yee’yeh nee’da’cheh’cha bik’tzay ha’sha’mayim,” Even though your dispersed will be at the far ends of Heaven, “Mee’sham y’ka’betz’cha Hashem E’lokecha u’mee’sham’ yee’kah’checha,” from there the Lord will gather you in, and from there He will take you.

It is during this period of the year that we must redouble our efforts to reach those of our brothers and sisters who are not yet connected to Jewish life, and are waiting longingly for a hand to be extended to them so that they may be welcomed back into the Jewish fold. We must not fail them. We will not fail them.

May you be blessed.