Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
25 Elul 5776
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Our world is full of choices, and we're used to being able to choose. No one needs 30 toothpaste options, but it's nice to know they're there. But we choose more than what we place in our shopping cart. The American Dream is based on the notion that we can choose our very identities: with enough hard work we can be whoever and whatever we want, no matter our background. It's an alluring philosophy and one that's served our country well. It's also fundamentally at odds with our Torah.
On the eve of the High Holy Days, we read the following: "I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you [Israel] alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). The challenge lies in those last few words -- "those who are not with us here this day" -- that's us. Our ancestors committed us to Judaism without our consent!
How exactly is this supposed to work? Some of our sages are troubled by the commitment of future generations, and ultimately conclude "this is surely not a legitimate obligation."[i] The commentator Abravanel tries to refute this conclusion by way of analogy. He compares the covenant to an inheritance, passed down from a previous generation. But, he points out, inheritance works both ways: a descendant can receive a payment or incur a debt, even if she played no role (or wasn't even alive) when the debt originated. Therefore, concludes Abravanel, our ancestors at Sinai were free to commit us to the covenant of Israel. Whether we view it as a blessing or a burden is irrelevant.
That might not sit well with everyone. The modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz finds fault with Abravanel's analogy. She notes that a child can "always forego his inheritance and consequently rid himself of any obligations and debts involved."[ii] So who's right? Can we choose Judaism for ourselves, or -- like eye color, foot size, and male pattern baldness -- do we receive it from our ancestors regardless of our preference?
While we're entitled to our opinion, history demonstrates we're usually not the ones who get to decide. Abravanel, living in Spain during the Inquisition, saw this firsthand: faced with persecution many Jews chose to convert. Some became devout Catholics. They attended mass daily. They believed in their hearts they were Catholic. But, ultimately, "They would still be called Jews against their own will and would be accused of Judaising in secret and be burnt at the stake for it."[iii] Centuries later, the secular Jewish newspaper reporter Theodore Herzl would see the same forces at work while covering the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. His experience ultimately convinced him of the need for a Jewish state.
Fortunately, much has changed since Abravanel's time, but his message is still relevant: our Judaism is more permanent than many of us realize. Perhaps that was the meaning behind the Torah's perplexing language. By accepting the original covenant, the Israelites defined themselves as different. That differentiation would transcend time and place and affect their descendants. We might think we are free to accept or reject our identity, but it's not so simple. We don't always get to decide.
As Jews we are bound to a covenant we didn't choose.[iv] To borrow Abravanel's analogy, some may see it as an inheritance received, and others as a debt incurred. And we may see it as both at different periods of our lives. But Judaism is not an identity easily cast aside. As Jews we are bound in covenant, both to God and to each other. As we prepare for the holiest of days, may we not take our unique destiny for granted. Rather may we commit ourselves to further strengthening the covenant we inherited, both for ourselves and future generations.
[i] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Deuteronomy, p. 298.
[ii] Ibid. p. 300.
[iii] Ibid. p. 302.
[iv] Jews by choice present a special case. Our tradition teaches that they were born with a Jewish soul, and are therefore bound to the covenant just the same as those with Jewish parents.
Taste of Torah: The Book!
The book, Taste of Torah: A Little Nosh of D'rash, is a collection of divrei Torah from the ISJL's circuit-riding rabbis, traditional Jewish recipes with a Southern twist and much more, it's a great gift for personal edification or to honor a friend or loved one. Thanks to the Lewis Bear Family Foundation, all proceeds go to continuing the mission of the ISJL.
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May you have a Sabbath of peace!
Rabbi Jeremy Simons
Director of Rabbinic Services
Please share this message with family and friends, especially those who do not have access to email, and when your congregation gathers for services I invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. I'd particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, moments of joy, [i.e. births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations] or illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.
(c) 2015 Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life