Choosing Life that You and All Seeds Shall Live: Renewing the Covenant after September 11

Brad Rubin

Choosing Life that You and All Seeds Shall Live: Renewing the Covenant after September 11

By Brad Rubin

[This essay was spoken as a d'var Torah, an interpretation of Torah, at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, DC, on Shabbat Nitzavim, September 15.]

Shabbat Shalom. First and foremost, let me begin by thanking God that all of us in this room are alive, and I hope against hope that at least no one here lost family or close friends in any of the week's tragic events. If you did, my heart goes out to you, as I think everyone else's does. . . .

Now, some of you may be here because it is your weekly routine, and at times like this, routine seems the best way to deal with and survive the incomparable shock.

Some of you may be here because it is exactly not your routine and the solace and refuge of some place different, this shul, may provide what you need.

Some may be here in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones, while still others may be here as a dress rehearsal for the upcoming holidays.

Whatever the reason, what is important is that we are all here, together, united, and I hope we can use this tragic Shabbat as the beginning of a new period of triumphant life, in much the way the words and events of this parsha, which has so much to teach us, represent hope in the face of tragedy.

The two chapters of this parsha, Chapters 29 and 30 of the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy, comprise the last portion of Moses' Final Discourse to the Jewish people prior to his death in Jordan and their entering the land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. . . .

Think of this for a moment. Moses chooses (says Rashi) the very day of his death to initiate the people into the covenant, the basis of their future life. But, you may ask, haven't the people already been initiated into the covenant? What was it then that happened at Sinai?

Abravanel provides a powerful characterization of this moment as the establishment of a new covenant, a second covenant, because the people now stood ready to enter the land of Israel. He says that, with the first covenant at Sinai, God bound himself to the souls of the people. But now they stood on the precipice of the promised land, and because the terms of the relationship between God and his people were about to change, Moses was required to reinitiate the covenant in a new form.

And as Moses proceeds with this initiation, he states that his subsequent words are binding "et asher yeshnu po, ve-et asher ainenu po," or "on whoever is here and whoever is not here." That is, Moses is announcing that his words and this new covenant will not die with him, and will not die with the passing of the last of those gathered before him, but will carry on and remain in force for all future generations.

One sage compares this to the roots of a tree being permitted to bind the branches because it is the roots that supply life. Just as the root ensures that the branch has life, the roots of our people gave life to all those they spawned on the day of this parsha.

Chapter 29 continues by echoing some of the previous aspects of this final discourse, the dire and severe consequences of failing to follow the Covenant. In this chapter, we are told at some length that he who turns away from God would, among other things, have his name erased from under Heaven and see a reprise of the plagues and destruction wrought on Sodom and Gomorrah.

But then, rather than continue in this manner and present the assembled with a sort of Faustian bargain, Moses says the following:

"I call heaven and earth to record this day that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing, therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live. To love the Lord thy God listen to God and cleave to God, for God is your Life and the length of your days."

That is, rather than demand that the people enter the covenant with God and follow God's commandments and revelation because of what they will suffer if they don't, Moses presents a vision of what they will gain and achieve by doing so.

Rather than play solely on the people's fear of divine retribution, which we can imagine would have been a rather effective course given what the people had seen and experienced during their exodus of the preceding 40+ years, Moses instead appeals to their essential humanity, their basic understanding of what could be in a world under God. And then provides this as a vision of what may come in their new land.

To me, this is absolutely revolutionary. What Moses says here is not that you must choose life or else face death, ultimate retribution and untold repercussion-but rather, choose life so that you and your seed shall live. And this is the essence of our covenant-to be borne of life, not death. . . .

Moses himself provides the best example of this-he says loudly and clearly that an "Act of God" is not a disaster but a choosing of life, is living, is giving life to others. Not fear, not threats, not death, not life at the expense of others. Rarely in our history has this distinction been clearer than it was this week.

So what precisely do "life" and "living" actually mean here? Many commentators focus on a concept central for us at this time of year, teshuvah, repentance, because of the appearance of the root "shuv" in seven of the first 10 verses of Chapter 30.

But for me, the real answer is again found in the writing of Abravanel, who wrote in regard to this text that "when we choose life, our choice should not be wholly dedicated to life on the material plane 'in order that our seed should live.' 'Life' should mean more than that, and should imply, as the next verse continues 'to love God and cleave to God.'

"Life is not an aim in itself. Rather the essence of 'life' and residence in the country promised to our forefathers by God, lies in doing good deeds and cleaving to God."

And what are those good deeds, how exactly do we cleave to God? God tells the people--and by specific extension, us--that it is for each of us to decide.

For rather than present a litany or precise formula of action, God provides only a negative formulation and says merely that the answer is not to be found in heaven or across the sea.

Basically, there is nowhere from whence a list can be created or dictated that provides the essence of life, and, implicitly we can see that there is no other person who can tell us how to live. No, God says "the matter is very near to you-in your mouth and your heart-to perform it."

So the obvious question at this point then is-are we? Are we both choosing life and living? Are we performing the life, the deeds that are in our mouths and hearts?

In order to answer at this most difficult, most tragic of moments, we must first realize that this week has, in some way, mirrored the parsha and initiated us into a new form of the preexisting covenant. In many ways, all of us have been bound together by last Tuesday.

In the same way that Moses rebound both those assembled before him and the generations to come, during this past week, whether you were in New York City, Washington, anywhere else in the world or not even born as of last Tuesday, this tragedy has so deeply affected us all that its effects and impact will never really end.

And just as our sorrow, our mourning, and our vulnerability can be compared to the experience of the exodus and wandering suffered by those gathered before Moses, we must now also be brought together in our will to choose life, our will to live.

As I reflected on this idea, I thought that there may be something dangerous about having such a terrible tragedy as our binding root, so I will now posit that we should turn instead to the life displayed this week as our binding force.

Perhaps we can sow as our roots the deeds of the rescue squads who so selflessly put themselves in harm's way to save lives, the people who have stood in lines for hours to donate blood, food, and other assistance, the Jews and Christians who have stood to defend Arab-Americans and Muslims from senseless hate crimes, and the Palestinians who held a candlelight vigil last night in Jerusalem to mourn the American dead.

And after understanding who we are, as brothers and sisters bound by the events of this week, we must now and forevermore assess whether and how we are turning and clinging to God. Because in the end, all we can do today and for the rest of our lives is control our own deeds, our own choosing of life, how we cleave to God.

As Moses says clearly, in one aspect of the previous covenant that remains unchanged, we cannot look to heaven or across the sea or to another person-for doing so leads people down the path of abandoning life, rather than choosing it. So we must now look into our own, perhaps slightly heavier, hearts.

So what of our lives, our living? The first thing we have learned this week is the depth of the sanctity of all human life. What else can we take from all of the heartbreaking stories we have heard and read this week. All of the stories of parents, children, lovers, friends, colleagues who have been taken from this world forever.

The gut-wrenching stories of final phone calls, last days, fleeting words, eternal memories.

The survivors silently holding out photographs and memories, entrusting them to the world, because they now have to believe in the world slightly more than they once did.

Before Tuesday, how many of us would have ever even considered the identities, let alone the depths of the lives of the people on those planes, in those buildings, in the rescue squads? After Tuesday, how many of us will ever forget them?

And think of how your own lives became more sacred this week. How many emails or phone calls have you sent to, or received from, old friends or family members, people you may have not heard from or even thought of in months or years? How many of you scrolled through all of the moments of your lives, moments once thought of as mundane which so suddenly became invaluably precious and special?

How many of you have looked at other people around you a little more tenderly, sincerely, humanly?

How many have spoken to a former stranger in your apartment building, your office building, a shopkeeper, a cab driver? How are you? How is your family? Close friends? Thank God. I'm sorry. So sorry.

We must reaffirm, today, now, as the primary pillar of this new covenant that all life is sacred. As Americans, when we hear our leaders and those around us call for more violence and death, we must demonstrate-loudly and in public-how to cling to God.

Although forever bound together, we must also now work that much harder to achieve and preserve unity and dignity and respect for life. Together. For the damaging of another innocent life in a large-scale retaliatory bombing or in an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim hate crime represents, in my mind, a desecration of the memories of those we have already lost. A scarring of the primary teaching of this new covenant.

And as Jews, we must use the events of this week and this time of year to revisit our understanding of the situation in Israel and Palestine. To understand why we woke from the horror of Tuesday to hear about IDF tanks rolling into Jericho on Wednesday and Jenin yesterday.

This, after all, unlike the actions of the hijackers, is something we can impact. And as painful as it might be at our time of extreme sadness, vulnerability and anger, we must continue to be those who can see beyond, we must be the ones who turn at every moment, particularly the most painful, to the meaning of the new covenant rooted in this parsha.

Like a Jewish friend of mine, a native New Yorker, who now works with Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem did. On the day after the hijackings, he wrote:

on top of the horror of yesterday, we were shown images of palestinians celebrating the suffering of these horrible events, something that is revolting to me, particularly given my role and activities here. but this is not the feeling of most of the people here. rather the suffering that all have endured requires them to feel compassion with other suffering.

yesterday afternoon and this morning, i have received phone calls from my palestinian friends and colleagues, offering their condolences and heartfelt shared mourning. what is most troubling is that they felt ashamed when speaking to me for they are not supportive of what some of their countrymen have done in response, and they also suspect that this was the work of arabs or muslims in the name of palestine.

they are ashamed as they do not support this, are horrified by it, and know that they (and all palestinians, arabs and muslims) will be viewed through the prism of this tragedy.

as difficult as it is for me today, i will go later and help a palestinian family finish laying the floor of its house.

as difficult as it is for me today, i will continue to try to bring to light the suffering of the people here and the need for a just peace.

and as difficult as it is for me today, i will go to palestinian cities and meet with palestinian friends. . . i urge you not to accept that the way some people have interpreted islam or any other religion or ideology to justify such actions as the way that all people of that religion interpret their faith.

For if we here do not now choose life and live, if we do not enter this new covenant as branches united by the roots of life, are we not giving in to the very lesson that God did not present to the assembled, the lesson of fear and retribution? Are we not foresaking the gift of life Moses presented to us on his own most tragic of days?

This week, we witnessed the most horrific example of the actions of people who have chosen death, rather than life. In many ways, their acts are unspeakable beyond words and beyond any type of classification or categorization.

But the moment we turn our back on the new covenant of life, on living, on our own hearts and move instead to violence and death, we too forsake the power of the covenant.

As Hillel once asked, If not now, when?

This Shabbat and during the Yomim Noraim of the next few weeks, we must begin the process of renewal. True, we are wounded, we are afraid, we are hesitant.

But we have a moment, however brief, where we stand on the precipice of our own Jordan River, when the initiation of this new covenant has brought things to a standstill.

And just as the people assembled before Moses had a chance to take stock of their new covenant before entering their new land, so too must we.

In this new covenant, we cannot believe that our pain and anger and sorrow will or should be alleviated by displacing it onto others. This can no longer be seen as a choice of life. To believe that terrorism is defeated when we simply answer it with more violence and terror is to be controlled by the lessons and deeds of others, those across the sea, rather than our own hearts.

In this new covenant, we must act in life, in peace regardless of how others may be acting toward us. In this new covenant, as Jews, we must also resume our pursuit of the promise of an Israel that respects the human rights of all people and pursues justice, an Israel that itself clings to God and views all individuals in God's image, an Israel that always chooses life, as it was so bound in this week's parsha.

For to continue with an Israel that is, in any way, destroying another people is a choice of death that we must wake up to and, in the future, perhaps one we will replace with a choice of life.

For in the end, we will never be able to live, all of us, together, in this world as all of the individual branches that Moshe envisioned, without coming together to find solutions to the crises in our collective midst.

I have talked at some length about the new covenant born this week. I would like to close by suggesting a slight but significant change to this text as a means of formalizing this new covenant.

In the future, may we read the directive of God in Chapter 30, verse 19 not to say that "you should choose life so that you and your seed shall live" but rather "so that you and all seeds shall live."

In the coming year, as we move from our time of mourning to our new life, from the old covenant to the new, I pray we will find more ways to emulate the heroes and cling to the life in our world, rather than the base hatred.

To find ways to insure that the seeds of all humanity live.

May we, all of us, always cling to God, choose life and then live, in each and every thing we do. Shabbat Shalom, good health to you all and early wishes for a shana tovah.