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Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5773 — 08/28/2013

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5773 — 08/28/2013

But not with you alone do I make this covenant and this imprecation; rather with those who are standing here with us today before Hashem our Gd, and with those who are not standing here with us today.  (29:13-14)

The hidden things are our Gd Hashem’s, but those things that are in the open are ours and our offspring’s forever, to do all of this Torah.  (29:28)

“Kol Israel eravin zeh ba’zeh. All Israel are responsible for one another.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot 39a)

The objective of Moses in this covenant was to create mutual responsibility. (Ohr haChaim haKodesh, quoted in MiOray haAish, R. Ari Kahn, 5760)

We Americans pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency, our “rugged individuality.”  We tend to reward mavericks (Steve Jobs comes to mind among contemporary cultural icons), those who buck the trend, who “go it alone.”  In the early days of our country, when our population was small and spread out over large distances, this model was probably evolutionary and necessary.  Interaction between individuals was small, in many cases resources were few, and survival favored competition rather than cooperation, or at least so it seemed.  Now that we have grown to a population of over 300 million, and there is, in almost all areas of the country, much interaction between individuals, perhaps it is time to look at other models of social organization.  The model Moshe Rabbeinu has been teaching throughout Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) takes a different perspective.

R. Shlomo Riskin, in an essay on our Parashah from 5760, posits that the difference between the covenant of our Parashah and the previous covenants (e.g. at Mt. Sinai) is in its democratic character.  It is made with the entire nation, from the greatest to the lowliest, not just with a religious elite.  In fact, this covenant binds us together as one nation, each of us having responsibility for one another.  The famous quote from the Talmud (above) is that “All Israel are responsible one for the other.”  It is like a family – we are supposed to care for one another, share each others joys, support each other when we have sorrows, help each other out when we stumble spiritually, and cooperate with one to achieve shared goals.  Just as we cannot help but see our family members as individual human beings, rather than objects to help us get what we want from the objective world, so we are supposed to treat all our covenantal brothers and sisters.

I would like to suggest that an understanding of physics leads us away from an extreme individualistic model, and more towards a model of mutual interconnectedness and responsibility.  When we study systems in physics we try to isolate them from their surroundings.  While we can do this on paper, in truth, there is no such thing as an isolated system.  Objects are bound by a number of different interactions, some of which, like gravity and the electromagnetic force, can persist over vast distances.  As we have mentioned on a number of occasions, whenever two things interact, there is a larger system that underlies both, and of which both are parts.  Their interaction is a reflection of the internal dynamics of the underlying system.  Ultimately, physicists believe that there is one unified field whose behavior shows up as the various particles of high-energy physics and their interactions, and it is out of these fundamental particles that atoms, molecules, animals, vegetables and minerals are all structured.  On this most profound level, everything is interconnected, because everything has its root in this level.

Our Sages describe the Jewish people in strikingly similar terms.  They tell us that each Jew’s soul has a root in the Divine, infinite basis of all creation.  There are 600,000 distinct soul roots, corresponding to the number of men in the census at the time of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Since there were then and certainly are now, more than 600,000 Jews, it appears that groups of Jews share the same soul root.  That is, somehow there are subgroups of the Jewish people that are extra closely interconnected across space and time.  Be that as it may, all the soul roots converge into the Divine, and are therefore connected together into one whole – the Jewish people.

Then, there are the others – they make a much bigger circle (Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof).  We have seen even in our lifetimes how the connections among all the nations and peoples of the world are becoming closer and closer.  A hundred years ago the Turks committed genocide, killing 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War.  This was noted by a number of journalists and diplomats, and there were newspaper reports and diplomatic cables, but it was a very distant thunder to most of the world.  The world’s silence was duly noted by Hitler.  During WW II it was necessary actively to turn a blind eye to reports of the unfolding genocide in Europe.  Nowadays of course, whether it be a natural disaster like the Japanese tsunami, or a man-made one like the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that makes low-price clothing for Americans and Europeans, we can see every detail of the incident and the victims in the intimacy of our living rooms.  We are all connected, we are all parts of a larger system, we are all expressions of the same underlying, unified field.  And therefore we are all responsible for one another.

The Days of Awe begin in a few days.  We will all stand before our Creator in judgment of our actions this past year, and our intentions for the coming year.  If we try to stand alone, we don’t stand a chance.  If we stand together with our fellow Jews and with our fellow human beings, there is hope.  That will require effort on all our parts, especially for those of us who have been privileged with education, with wealth, with some influence.  How will we spend our time and our resources?  Will our choices help or hurt?  Will we further damage the planet, or will we help heal it?  Will we protest injustice, exploitation and murder, or will we close our eyes?  Will we devote ourselves to developing our souls, or to gratifying our bodies?  Hashem is listening!

Pirke Avot, Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5, Mishnah 13

There are four types of people:

One who says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ is the average sort, but some say, this is the trait of Sodom…

What is the difference in the evaluation of this seemingly unremarkable statement about personal property?  R. Lau gives a number of intriguing possibilities from the Rabbinic literature.  I’d like to suggest another – the two different statements reflect two different perspectives on individuality.  If we see ourselves primarily as individuals, then looking out for #1 is always going to be our priority, as will be the maintenance of boundaries.  This is, for better or worse, the average perspective in our day and age.  But for someone with a more elevated perspective, someone who can see the intrinsic connectedness of all people, such a bounded approach to the world is indeed more indicative of the small-minded, greedy and cruel people of Sodom.  As we conclude this year’s readings of Pirke Avot, perhaps what we can take away from our Sages’ sayings is this: all our striving should be to expand the boundaries of our individuality, until our perspective is truly universal, all-encompassing, giving and warm-hearted to all.  Imagine the paradise we could create!

L’Shanah Tovah u’m’tukah!