The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.
This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)
Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.
I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.
But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.
There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.
The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.
My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it. For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.
The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.
Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
I find this a comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.
It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”
But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.
It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.