Each week IPA staff and guest contributors take a look at the weekly parsha and discuss it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Nitzavim-Vayelech 5770: Social Contract
We are in the midst of Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people. In a tradition that would be followed by the likes of President Washington and President Reagan, Moses looks to give counsel that will last not for a day or a year or even a lifetime, but for eternity. Washington famously took the opportunity to argue against permanent alliances, and to suggest – perhaps it was the old soldier in him – that “timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.” Reagan used the time to think about American symbolism, beginning with a story of an American sailor on the carrier Midway being hailed by a refugee as “freedom man.”
This week’s Torah portion, has Moses focus the Jewish people on a particular aspect of their covenant with G-d: it’s eternity. Stating “Atem nitzavim ha’yom kulchem,” all of you are standing here today, on the cusp of entering Israel, and fulfilling G-d’s command. All of you; also your ancestors no longer alive as well as your unborn descendents. All of you stood at Sinai. All of you joined a compact – a covenant.
A Native American saying teaches (some say it’s Amish): you do not inherit the land from your parents; you borrow it from your children. Moses is saying the Torah & the covenant are not yours alone. There is a past & a future for which you are merely guardians, trustees and watchers.
What made the founding fathers struggle against a world Empire that ruled the seas and on whom the Sun never set? What made President Reagan’s generation stand firm in the face of Nazi tyranny and then the Iron Curtain?
In Western thought, the original social contract theory of government was Hobbes (no, not that one), declaring we join together in a community solely for the utilitarian idea of protection. But John Locke’s social contract theory maintains we join for an ideal of the common good: i.e., I may not use certain services the government provides but we want a government that provides them to those in need.
The Torah is saying even more, that we have joined together to make ourselves and our children different and to give meaning to the lives and sacrifices of our parents.
As they are about to enter Israel and struggle with a conquest and then, with the attendant problems of victory – building a land, creating institutions and infrastructure – courts and commerce, damming rivers and paving roads – Moses gives them the charge he believes will see them through. It’s not just you.
The Talmud has said that a three corded rope doesn’t fray easy. Similarly, Moses is teaching us perhaps that Jewish history – and the Jewish present – may be hard sometimes, but that if we keep our eyes on the Jewish future, we can make it so.
So too it is in our personal lives and in the lives of any community or country. There are hard times – be they economically hard, like here in the United States, be they life threatening – and sadly, life taking – as occurred in Israel this week, or be it some other personal or communal hardship. Looking back on what those before us tried to build (successfully or not) and looking ahead to what we want to leave behind for the next generation, makes it easier.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.
Posted by: Howie Beigelman, Deputy Director of Public Policy.