“An Exclusive Covenant with an Inclusive Philosophy”
(Revised and updated from Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5760-2000)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In parashat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we encounter the great Moses, on the last day of his life.

Moses has gathered all the Jewish people from the lowliest to the most exalted, old and young, men and women, to bring them into the final covenant with G-d. This covenant is intended to serve as a powerful affirmation of עַרֵבוּת–a’ray’vut, reflecting the profound concept of every Jew assuming responsibility for their fellow Jews.

In Deuteronomy 29:9-14, Moses says to the Jewish people, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. “You are standing today before the L-rd 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 water-drawers. For you to enter in to the covenant of the L-rd your G-d and His oath which the L-rd 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 L-rd our G-d, and with those who are not here today.”

These bold verses continue to dramatically reverberate with us, even to this day, as if they were being pronounced to the People of Israel at this very moment.

In the name of G-d, Moses declares: אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, “You are standing here today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d!” The commentators see in the nuance of the language, in the use of the word, אַתֶּם–“Ah’tem,” that this covenant is being exacted with a broad constituency. It is not a contract with the nobility of Israel. Israel has no nobility who are granted special advantages, nor can there be special representatives or privileged proxies before G-d. This gathering is not intended to be a gathering of Priests, Prophets or Holy People. This covenant is not to be concluded only with those of esteemed pedigree or of exalted birth. Judaism, after all, is not a sect or a cult. This covenant is meant for the entire people of Israel. In an unprecedented act in human history and in the history of religions, Moses declares in the name of G-d, 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 the past, present and future members of Israel. Deuteronomy 29:14 boldly proclaims, כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם, “Not only with you who stand here with us today before the L-rd our G-d, does G-d seal this covenant, 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 Jewish generations are seen as if they are standing before the L-rd our G-d. At this singular moment, we all stand together as one Jewish people–past, present and future.

Yes, this covenant is intended to be all-embracing, 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. For the Al-mighty it must be even more inclusive. Not only is this covenant intended for those who are not with us at this time, but even for those who are not with us in spirit, in thought, in mind and in belief. It includes even those who recoil and say: “We do not want any part in this covenant today, הַיּוֹם–Ha’yom. This is not for us. We seek alternative religious experiences. We are off to the Himalayas, to embrace our personal Gurus, to dwell in the Ashram. We reject your concept of Heaven, we relate only to Earth.” There are always some who relate only to the Heavens, to the metaphysical, and reject the 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, attitudes can change.

From this covenant which Moses executed 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. Everyone is included!

It is with this same heightened sense of inclusiveness that we are to begin the preparations for the rapidly approaching High Holidays. As we read in the introductory meditation for the כָּל נִדְרֵי–Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur night, we say, בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַעְלָה, By the authority of the heavenly court, by the authority of the earthly 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.

That is why during this propitious time of the year, 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, unfortunately, we’ve wound up with a “meltdown” instead. But, 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 Deuteronomy 30:4, in this week’s parasha, אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם, Even though your dispersed be at the far ends of Heaven, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ, from there the L-rd will gather you in, and from there He will take you.

It is during this very special High Holiday season that we are called upon to redouble our efforts, to reach out to 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 too may be welcomed back into the Jewish fold. We must not fail them. We will not fail them.


May you be blessed.


Rosh Hashana 5781 is observed this year on Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday, September 18th, 19th and 20th, 2020. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Monday, September 21st from dawn until nightfall.