In Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), Moses is coming to the end of his oration, the end of his leadership, and the end of his life. His last sermon is brief, as he calls the people to attention; reminds them not to follow the idolatrous ways of the Canaanites among whom they will dwell; and promises them that, even if they should stray, God will take the penitent back in love:
"Then the Eternal your God will restore (v'shav) your fortunes and take you back in love. [God] will bring you together (v'shav) again from all the peoples where the Eternal your God has scattered you." (Deuteronomy 30:3)
The English translation found in The Torah a Modern Commentary, Revised Edition1 does not quite capture the repetition of the word for "restore" or "return." But looking at the Hebrew, the duplication is a puzzlement. The Meshekh Hokhmah, commentary of Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (late 19th century Russia), gives us this interpretation:
"Why does the verse repeat the word 'return' twice? The reason is that there are two types of exile and two types of people in exile. 'The Lord will return your captivity' refers to those who are in exile and who feel it constantly, and who long to return to Eretz Israel. Those will be the first ones who are returned to Eretz Yisrael. However, 'He will have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from among all the nations' refers to those Jews who have made their peace with their exile, and who feel quite comfortable where they are. They, too, will be returned to our land."2
Rabbi Meir Simhah's commentary reflected the situation of Jews of his own generation, but it also was prescient with regard to Jewish life in our own time. He recognized that Jews living under duress would need a homeland in Eretz Yisrael sooner rather than later—including those in his hometown. But he did not proclaim himself a Zionist, and he refused to leave Dvinsk even as he supported the concept of aliyah for others.3
Today, too, there are Diaspora Jews who feel endangered and who long for the relative safety of Eretz Yisrael; it's no surprise that, out of 24,800 who made aliyah in 2014, well over 6,000 came from France, where anti-Semitism and deadly violence against Jews have grown exponentially. Yet half the world's Jewish population still resides outside of Israel—most in North America, where we find life safe and comfortable. We take inspiration and enrichment not only from Israel, but also from two thousand years of the Diaspora's cultural, religious, and scientific achievements.
Rabbi Meir Simhah wrote that we, too, "will be returned to our land." But must that mean only aliyah? Can we not legitimately support Israel, spend time in Israel, embrace the Zionist cause, but live elsewhere? Reform Judaism's own statement of support for aliyah begins with the sentence: "Progressive Judaism believes that Jews can live fulfilling and meaningful lives in any part of the world."4 Perhaps the translation of our verses found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary is closer to the truth. After all: God will "bring us together," imbuing us with a sense of peoplehood no matter where we are and providing a shield against those who may disparage Diaspora Jews for our choices.
Former URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in a recent essay in Haaretz, dismissed a similar argument by Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine in the wake of renewed ultra-Orthodox power in the new Israeli government:
"Tobin concludes that the non-Orthodox movements must bring more people to Israel if they want recognition. But Jews did not argue for religious freedom and equality in Europe and America on the grounds that they constituted a given percentage of the population. If this had been their argument, they would have been denied recognition everywhere. They made the opposite claim—that they were entitled to religious rights regardless of numbers. And if this were so in Europe and America, it is true in Israel as well. . . . If Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, Diaspora Jews should expect that the great Diaspora religious movements will be treated with respect in the Jewish state."5
Perhaps this perspective also gives fresh meaning to Moses's words this week:
"I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us on this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).
One need not physically stand among those destined to dwell in the Land of Israel in order to stand before God as part of the People Israel. While we may be separated by time, by space, by native language, by ritual practice, or by the conditions in which we live, we who embrace the covenant are all worthy of being part of Klal Yisrael.
1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,375
2. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, compiled, Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein translated, Torah Gems Volume III: Bamidbar/Devarim (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1998)
3. "Me-ir Simhah ha-Kohen," The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, www.yivoencyclopedia.org
4. "Aliyah—Immigration to Israel," http://www.reformjudaism.org/aliyah-immigration-israel
5. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, "Stop making excuses for ultra-Orthodox Extremism in Israel" Haaretz, June 1, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.659107
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she was ordained in 1999.
We like certainty: the definitive diagnosis, the quickest route to our destination, the secret formula to ensure acceptance to an elite school. The idea of ambiguity and uncertainty is both fearful and disorienting. And yet, it is unavoidable, despite our attempts at control. Rather than running from the tension of ambiguity, we should embrace it.
Rabbi Korotkin expresses a fundamental truth about 21st century Jewish life: we are all part of Klal Yisrael, bringing different gifts and strengths to the ongoing story of the Jewish people. For many of us who live outside of Eretz Yisrael, involvement and commitment to the Jewish homeland is central to our Jewish identity. This, however, is an invitation to ambiguity and tension, not to resolution.
Parashat Nitzavim makes it clear (in extreme language) that living amongst the nations of the world is not without its dangers. "Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God to go and worship the gods of those nations" (Deuteronomy 29:17). Put more positively, the portion also emphasizes that "the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed" (Deuteronomy 30:5). The challenges—and dangers—of Jewish living in the Diaspora—from anti-Semitism to assimilation and the boundless promise of life in Eretz Yisrael—are as true today as they were in the ancient sermon given by Moses.
We live most richly when we embrace—rather than resolve—the tension between Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. Those who struggle and suffer and flourish building the Jewish homeland have a perspective that we in North America and other parts of the world do not have. We who live outside of Israel have a voice that can help strengthen the Jewish homeland, to be sure, but this acknowledgement is best made with humility, and a willingness to constantly question.
Rabbi Betsy Torop is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, Brandon, Florida.
Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,385;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234