Nitsavim: Present and absent

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp from woodchopper to water
drawer – to enter into the covenant with the Lord your God…I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here today. (Devarim 29:9-11, 13-14).

I make this covenant with you
standing here this day:

leaders steeped in power
and knowledge of My ways;

strangers dwelling in your camp
who still seek out their place;

the old who saw the wonders, and
the young who dream, bright-eyed;

masters of the household; and
their wives confined inside.

I make this covenant with you
not standing here this day:

whose God-entrusted spirit
is trapped in a feeble frame;

whose faculties are frail
and who cannot heed My words;

and the coming generations
– the children not yet born,

who will hear the words resounding
through the mistiness of time.


The text clearly stipulates that this covenant of mutual commitments between God and the people of Israel was binding on all Israelites with no exceptions, both at that time and forever. (The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that ancient Near Eastern treaties likewise stipulate that they are binding on the parties’ descendants.) Moreover, it is also clear that it is not only binding on the leaders and adult males, but on each individual who affirms the covenant in his/her own right, and not through the action of a parent, husband or superior. With regard to the phrase, “those who are not with us here today” the Midrash Tanhuma teaches that this refers to the souls of all future Jews who were present at this moment as they had been at Sinai.
The Etz Hayim adds that Moses’ words could be referring to the physically or mentally handicapped, who might have been unable to be present but were still part of the community, or to those Jews who reject the covenant, but are nevertheless not excluded from it. The Etz Hayim continues, “What right did our ancestors have to impose the obligations of the covenant on us? Why do we have to feel bound by their actions? Many aspects of our lives were determined by decisions of our parents and ancestors…Maturity consists in accepting those conditions as the facts of our lives, rather than fantasizing about how our lives would have been easier had we been born otherwise.”

In a commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5684, Rabbi Gail Labovitz also addresses this question of how the covenant entered into by our ancestors can be imposed on us if we never agreed to it personally? She says, “It is as the verse suggests – the covenant is made even with those who were not physically present, that is, “future generations and converts.” She notes that the Talmud in Shevuot 39a, and a few similar examples, are the beginning of the midrashic theme mentioned above in the Tanhuma, namely the concept that all Jewish souls ever destined to exist were present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Labovitz quotes:
“God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord… (Shemot 20:1-2) – Rabbi Yitzhak said “Even what the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received at Sinai.” From where do we know this? As it is written, “but both those that are standing here with us this day” (Devarim 29:14): this is the one who has already come into existence. “Those who are”: this is the one who is (now) in the world. “Those who are not (with us here this day)”: this is the one who will come into existence in the future. “(Those who are not) with us here this day” – it does not say “standing with us,” but only “with us this day”: these are the souls which will come into existence in the future, about whom it cannot be said “standing,” (and) even they are included in the general grouping (of those being addressed at Sinai).”
So Rabbi Labovitz deduces, “All of us were present in soul; all of us accepted and are bound to the covenant.”
She says, “…On the one hand I can trace for you the history of this midrashic theme, show you through historical and literary methods how it developed from text to text and came to fruition in its current location, early in what we categorize as the medieval period of history. And yet, I can also assert in the fullness of my faith that this midrash is true. I believe without doubt that my soul was present at Sinai. I believe without doubt that the soul of each and every person who has been, is now, or ever will be part of the Jewish people, was present at Sinai.
“How do I know this? I know this in part because so many Jews experience it as true. Anyone who knows Jews by choice has probably heard such a person describe the moment of finding Judaism and Jewish community, the sudden certainty that this was good and right and where that person was meant to be – that that person’s soul knew all along that it had been at Sinai and accepted the Jewish covenant with God. One sometimes hears something similar from people who grew up in “crypto-Jewish” communities (as, for example, in the American Southwest), as the probable descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity in medieval Spain and other places, and who passed down among their families traditions whose origins were hardly remembered, such as lighting candles on Friday evenings. When members of these communities make contact with modern day Jews and Judaism, some of them too express a feeling of “home-coming.” They too sometimes experience the buried knowledge of the Sinai experience their souls underwent. When people such as these learn the midrash of the Tanhuma, they immediately recognize it as describing their own, true experience.”

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