Nitzavim comes in the cycle of Torah readings just before Rosh HaShanah and is particularly appropriate for the High Holidays because it stresses the importance of repentance. The tone of the passage is at once both lofty and terrifying.
It begins with Moses' inspiring address to the entire people of Israel shortly before he is to die, "You stand this day (Atem nitzavim hayom), all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
No one anywhere in time or space is excluded from this message, for only three verses later it extends the witnesses to " … those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and … those who are not with us here this day" (29:14), which our Rabbinic Sages understood as a reference to all future generations of Jews. Every Jew of every generation was witness to what was about to occur.
"… to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God's people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (29:11-12)." This is the final statement about covenant in the Torah, the central element of the relationship between God and Israel.
And then comes the terrifying part. It warns what will happen to those who backslide and fail to live up to the terms of the covenant. "The Eternal's anger and passion will rage against them, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon them, and the Eternal blots out their name from under heaven. … And later generations … and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land [will ask]. … Why did the Eternal do thus to this land? Why this awful wrath?" (29:19-23).
The point of the passage seems clear. God redeemed the Children of Israel from the horrors of ancient Egyptian slavery, cared for them throughout their sojourns in an inhospitable desert, and gave them a system of ethical and ritual laws to sustain them as a community in a difficult ancient world. God is about to lead them into a land of promise, but the situation is nevertheless fraught with danger from within and from without. It is essential that the community live according to the covenant established for them. Those who carry out the terms of the covenant will enjoy great bounty. But those who do not will be cursed with dreadful suffering.
There can be no doubt that Jews throughout the centuries and millennia have disagreed over the meaning of the covenant and over the laws that have been enumerated in its name. But despite our many differences we have always agreed on the need to be true to a notion of covenant, even if the meaning differs between Jewish communities. The Hebrew of the opening words of this sedra — Atem nitzavim hayom — can mean, "You stand firm this day," and the midrash known as Tanchuma (Nitzavim 1) asks, "When [does the Jewish people stand firm]? When you will be unified, as it says, Those of you who hold fast to the Eternal your God are all alive today (Deuteronomy 4:4)."
Jewish unity means different things to different people. Some demand unity in practice according to their particular interpretations of Jewish tradition. Others demand political unity according to their particular opinions over issues confronting the State of Israel.
But this is not the actual sense of Jewish unity according to the classic Talmudic pronouncement expressing the unity of all Jews, " Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh" (Babylonian Talmud, Sh'vuot 39a). It is usually translated as, "All of Israel is responsible for one another." The word arev (the singular form of arevim) is the key term in the phrase, and it means, literally, to serve as security for a loan. A person can be an arev for another person, meaning that she takes on the obligation to pay the debt of another. The meaning of the phrase, then, actually means something a bit more specific: "All Jews are responsible for the debts of one another." What kind of debts could they be talking about?
The Talmudic discussion in which this saying occurs is pondering the existential problem of divine punishment (as it was understood through plague, drought, and suffering at the hand of enemies); and the responsibility that the community has to police itself in order to avoid these communal crises. The way the discussion arises is interesting. The Sages of the Talmud observe that some verses of the Torah teach how perpetrators of certain crimes will be punished only for their own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16), while other verses teach that children will suffer for the sins of their parents (Exodus 34:7). This seems like a contradiction.
The Rabbis resolve the issue by noting that children will suffer for the sins of their parents when they follow their parents' example, based on a creative reading Leviticus 26:29, "those who survive will rot away… through [or because of] the sins of their parents; that refers to those who take on the acts of their parents." They then extend it not only to the acts of parents, but also to the acts of their fellow: "Is it not written, they will stumble through one's brother (Leviticus 26:37)? That refers to [stumbling] because of the sin of one's brother. This teaches that "all are responsible for one another" (kulam arevim zeh bazeh) because in this case, it was in their power to protest [the evil behaviors of their community] but they did not protest" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b).
The most famous verse that raises the problem of suffering for others' sins is recited repeatedly during the High Holidays (and on Festival days). It begins Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun erech apayim v'rav chesed ve-emet, "The Eternal, the Eternal! God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness." The beginning of the following verse is included in this famous High Holiday statement: notzer chesed laalafim, nosei avon vafesha v'chataah v'nakei, "extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." This is the ultimate statement of God's compassion as we read it in our High Holiday liturgy.
But the way we read it on the High Holidays is not really the way the verse appears in the Torah! The actual verse continues: "yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations" (Exodus 34:6). The Rabbis understand that, like it or not, all Jews hold some responsibility for the sinful acts of their fellow Jews. We are arevim, "obliged to pay the debt" of our brothers and sisters when they err and when they sin.
What could this really mean? The Rabbis were well aware that innocent people often suffer from the bad decisions, selfishness, and indifference of their compatriots. We pay for the terrible behavior of our fellows. The Rabbis articulated that reality in terms of divine retribution by arguing that God punishes us when it is in our power to prevent the sin of our fellow but we fail to prevent it. We may not see the world exactly as did the Rabbis, but it is clear that we must take some responsibility for the bad decisions of our fellows. We are responsible for one another — arevim zeh bazeh.
As we enter these holiest days of the year, we need to think not only about our own personal sins of commission and omission, but also our responsibility to speak up when others engage in unacceptable behaviors. Our shrinking world has extended our indebtedness to those beyond our extended family and tribe. The world is increasingly united in the debts that we owe one another — and are required to pay, one way or another.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and author of Who Are the Real Chosen People?