We will survive and thrive--legacy--Nitzvaim-Vayelech

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
September 12, 2020

Today we read a SHORT double parshah: Nitzavim-Vayelech One might think that short and double parshah are an oxymoron or mutually exclusive--but this is the exception to the rule. Our parsha has a renewal of the covenant, the brit between God and the Jewish people. In many ways it reads like an ethical will, especially Vayelech. Moshe tells his family, his people, all of us, that his days are numbered. He tells us that he will die soon AND THAT WE WILL SURVIVE. Deuteronomy has been Moshe’s lesson to the Jewish people. Within it, he clarified the mitzvot that were received at Sinai. Within it, he taught us the importance of leadership planning, succession, and what we will actually need to do when we reach the promised land. Reading this parsha, the words of George Washington in the rhythm of Lin Manuel Miranda came to me:


One last time/The people will hear from me/One last time/And if we get this right/ We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say/Goodbye/You and I—...If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives me when I’m gone/Like the scripture says:/“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree/And no one shall make them afraid.”/They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made/I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree/A moment alone in the shade/At home in this nation we’ve made/One last time

In that song, in Washingtons’ farewell address he shared a vision for the future that did not include him. The same is true with Moshe. Both Washington and Moshe share a vision for a nation that is a light unto all the others. Neither America or the Jewish people can have one singular, forever leader. Here we have elections, three co-equal branches of government that work to ensure the wellbeing of our nation. As Jews, we have no pope, no patriarch, only God. We have thousands of years of conversations, case law, and rabbis striving to serve God and the Jewish people. In this way, l’dor vador, from generation to generation the torch is passed, and we continue.

Yesterday was a challenging day for those who have connections to the Big Apple. In the history of our country, few days truly shocked us. Few days made us feel so vulnerable. Before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, September 11 was just another day. It was the birthday of two of my uncles and my brother in law. It was an ordinary day right before Rosh Hashanah. Rabbis across the country had their sermons printed and ready to deliver and then they have to tear them up and start again. My teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman, with techno-rabbi Jason Miller collected those sermons. If you ever have time, I highly recommend going through https://torahfromterror.blogspot.com It is incredibly moving to see how our communities pivoted, how in a moment of fear, we found words to inspire, to connect to build.

At this moment we find ourselves in another terrorist attack. The difference is the enemy is not really foreign, nor is it entirely domestic. We cannot fight it with military force. Instead, COVID-19 is a quiet killer. For some it is asymptomatic, allowing people to unknowingly share it with others. For some the symptoms are mild and brief, but for others it is deadly. Even for those who overcome it, recovery is not always quick. I know a number of Covid “long-haulers”, including my own father, who remain with painful and debilitating symptoms months after “recovery”. In this country we are rapidly approaching 200,000 attributed deaths, with many more unattributed deaths this year. In the state of Florida, we have lost over 12,000 people. That is four 9/11s since March.

Our parsha asks us about the choices we make. Moshe reminds us what is important. He teaches us that the Brit was not only with our ancestors, but also with us:

וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ 

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone,

כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃ 

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.

Moshe teaches that we will make mistakes, that we will have challenges, yet in the end, it will be ok:

וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי־יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה 

When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the LORD your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.

וּמָ֨ל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב זַרְעֶ֑ךָ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לְמַ֥עַן חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

Then the LORD your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.

Even in the times of our ancestors, faith was a messy thing. Even those that saw miracles first hand did not always see God’s hand in them. How do we look at our world today? I see science and technology as blessings from God--most of the time. The tools that bring us together can also push us apart. We must use them for good!

Moshe teaches us that WE can live a righteous life. The Torah is NOT in heaven, but it is here with us. Our Torah teaches that we must be responsible for the health of our brothers and sisters. We must use the science that is available to make choices--and adjust them if research teaches something new. That is not flip-flopping but the scientific process. We can laugh about the health of eggs, over the years, but we have clearly learned the dangers of cigarettes and excess alcohol. We are privileged to live in a world where parents do not worry about Polio, Rubella, Diphtheria, Mumps, many forms of meningitis or the Measles. As a child, I had the chickenpox. It was a terrible experience. I am so grateful that my children will never have to experience that itching, that pain, that fever.

I think back to Moshe and Washington. Both showed us that to plan for the future is to teach our children, to set the stage for the next generation. We have work to do--not only for us, but for those that follow. As we go into Rosh Hashanah, I pray for a year of blessings for us all, health for us all and a viable vaccine as soon as possible!