Parshat Nitzavim: Dahlia Lithwick talks about “signing” a covenant

Parshat Nitzavim: Dahlia Lithwick talks about “signing” a covenant

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Let’s Make A Deal. Picture it: It’s the very last day of Moses’s life and he’s gathered all the Children of Israel around him for one last farewell pep talk. Except this isn’t really so peppy a pep talk. It’s a pep talk designed to scare their pants off. A pep talk with the full force of the Torah behind it. Parshat Nitzavim opens by observing that everyone is there – from the fancy elders and officials down to the woodchoppers and waterdrawers. The reason even the woodchoppers are mentioned? This is a contract between God and everyone. The Children of Israel aren’t gathered just to listen this time. They are each there to perform a binding legal act; to enter a covenant. It’s a little bit like Let’s Make a Deal, in that God is saying “Come on Down!” God’s going to sign and seal a lifelong bargain with them today. On this day, says the Torah, as if to emphasize to us that anyone reading it is also binding themselves, right now, today. It’s the sealing of a bargain God promised decades before; to the people who first got Judaism started – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. So consequential is this promise God is about to enter, God tells the Children of Israel that although every last one of them is there, (woodchoppers, waterdrawers, etc.) God is also entering a covenant with those who aren’t there – the generations who haven’t even been born yet. And so high are the stakes for this bargain with God, we are being treated to a warning: That anyone present who might be mouthing the promise while secretly thinking about straying from God’s path. Note to secret sinners: If you break your covenant with God, your name will be, the Torah says, “blotted out from under heaven.” That’s Torah-speak for Don’t. Even. Think. About. It. In case you ever wondered what it means to literally put the fear of God into someone, Nitzavim offers some clues. If the Israelites opt to stray from the commandments, God will send plagues and diseases on the lands, and devastate the soil with sulfur and salt. Should the Children of Israel chase mindlessly after other gods– – the wood, stone, silver, and gold gods – God will literally throw every curse in the book at them. You can imagine the Children of Israel pretty much trembling in their sandals hearing all this, but then God shows them what’s behind door number two. Promising them free choice– and that if they listen to and follow the laws of the Torah God will gather them together, and bring them back with love. Somehow, Nitzavim gives you the sense that however many times you chose Door Number One, (the sins and stuff) Door Number Two is always still available if you are serious about returning to God. No matter how many times you choose the wrong path, there is always the possibility of forgiveness and return. And the Torah is very specific about the prizes: If you just keep your promises to God, you’ll be rewarded with kids! Cattle! Crops! It’s even better than the Showcase Showdown. And for a people who have been slogging through a dusty desert for ages, these prizes must have sounded like heaven on Earth. Imagine. After all those years of having sand in your robe, how wonderful the idea of cooling off under your very own olive tree would have sounded. God is painfully specific about the blessings and the curses. And there’s one other thing that’s very specific today – the commandments, or literally, mitzvot, that God’s giving – they’re not to be found up in the heavens or far out across the sea. They are not supposed to be complicated like that. These commandments are already in our own mouths and our own hearts. You already own the prize! Heaven on Earth is as close as your own mouth and your own heart! Finally, as is the case with all binding legal agreements, God finds two witnesses to the deal, calling on Heaven and Earth to witness this covenant that stretches back to the first ancestors of the Israelites, and forward to every descendant of those who entered into it. Heaven and Earth, past and present, blessings and promises. It really is the deal of a lifetime. And maybe a lifetime or two after that. Producer: Sarah Lefton Animation Director: Nick Fox-Gieg Animation: Liesje Kraai Editorial Director: Matthue Roth G-dcast Theme Music: Tim Cosgrove Written and narrated by Dahlia Lithwick Recording by Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

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