I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing
here with us this day before Adonay our God
and with those who are not with us here this day.
As a boy I rarely missed school due to illness. There was however, one positive thing in those days about missing school: The homework exemption. If you missed a day of school, you were forgiven for not completing the homework assigned that day. Unfortunately for many of today’s students, that ‘exemption’ no longer exists. If you miss school, you are responsible to find out what you missed and to complete the work thoroughly. Absent or not; exemptions no longer apply…
On a grander scale, when it comes to Judaism, the opposite thinking applies. In ancient times everyone was held accountable to identify with the Jewish community. There were no exemptions. Today, most of us believe we maintain complete right to exempt ourselves from any form of Judaism irrelevant to our lives. How and if we identify as Jews is left to our individual discretion.
In reading the two verses quoted above (taken from this week’s portion, Nitzavim), many commentators suggest that Moses was offering a final charge to both the desert Jews and to future generations not yet born.
However, I interpret a little differently.
Based on the forty year history in the desert, it is pretty obvious that not every Jew there bought into the new Israelite way of life. Ergo, we can assume that many desert Jews absented themselves from the final, spirited encounter with Moses (as described in Nitzavim). In response to the absentee Jews, the astute Moses took the same stance as do our present day teachers. He suggested that when it came to national identification, no one would be exempt from Am Yisrael.
As we prepare for Rosh HaShanah next week, we are keenly aware that for all who stand with us, either at synagogue or in our home celebrations; there are many who have distanced themselves from the Am Yisrael of today. Certainly, we cannot force identification or affiliation. Nevertheless, at least in theory, the practice we learn from the Torah is that no one is exempt from responsibility to the Jewish people. Claiming exemptions has and will continue to impact the Jewish community in terms of synagogues Jewish education and raising families. Claiming exemptions will further dilute our collective spiritual voice; a once powerful voice which is rapidly fading. We can claim all the exemptions we want; citing the power of our individualism and the anachronistic nature of Jewish experience. Yet, Moses set the paradigm thousands of years ago; when he passionately reminded the people of their eternal obligation to be present and accounted for as Jews-without exception or exemption. As we prepare for another Jewish year, I hope we are mindful of his words.
…And so, when we rabbis speak about the community not present on the upcoming Days of Awe; our intention is neither to berate nor to belittle. We merely follow in the tradition of Moses; recognizing that the future of the Jewish people will depend on our people being eternally present-without exemption.
On behalf of my entire family, I wish everyone a Shana Tova; a good, healthy, meaningful and fulfilling year for our bodies and our souls.