The Hebrew month of Elul invites us into a period of preparatory self-reflection and contemplation, calling us to center our thoughts on our own t'shuvah. Elul culminates in the observance of S'lichot, a time of penitential prayer and meditation when we ready ourselves for the spiritual labor of the Days of Awe. This observance (which will occur on this Shabbat) guides us toward an examination of our inner selves and, in turn, provides a foretaste of the High Holy Days themselves.
This week brings a preview of another sort as well. Our scheduled Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim/Vayeilech, offers a bit of textual foreshadowing: its words contain the Torah reading we will hear in our synagogues on Yom Kippur morning. The words of the portion are already familiar to many of us:
"You stand this day, 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-to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day . . . not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).
When we read these words, we draw comfort from their inclusiveness and from the charitable impulse of the biblical text. God's covenant belongs not merely to the wise or the influential, Deuteronomy asserts, but to every member of our community regardless of age, gender, or social station; its expansiveness extends even to include the countless generations yet to come. This instinct toward outreach is a tonic for Jews who have felt excluded or overlooked by their religious community. The Torah portion reminds all of us: the covenant includes you, too. What we frequently overlook, however, is that our willingness to extend the boundaries of covenant for the sake of inclusion and universalism necessarily entails demands as well as social rewards.
Immediately after his generous pronouncement, Moses directs his subsequent comments to certain unspecified listeners in the crowd. He begins: "Perchance there is among you some man or woman . . . whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God . . ." (29:17). Moses speaks directly to those people who are included under the wide tent of God's covenant but who, even at this momentous time of communal and religious connection, feel that they do not belong. Although they know intellectually that they are included in the covenant, they feel themselves, even at a time of profound unity and sanctity, slipping away from the faith and people of Israel.
Moreover (and this is Moses's chief concern), these disenfranchised Israelites have come to believe that because they are not at home in their religious community, their wayward hearts are not a true liability to it. Moses goes on, giving voice to those in the crowd who remain abashedly silent: "He may fancy himself immune, thinking, 'I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart' . . ." (29:18). These marginalized Israelites believe that God will overlook their infidelity (reasoning, perhaps, that God will ignore their sin just as the community ignored their physical presence). But Moses insists that this mistaken point of view will lead the entire community, not only the one who holds it, to "utter ruin" (29:18). His insistence exposes the gripping paradox of our parashah: we are so moved by the inclusiveness of its prologue that we may overlook the fact that the more broadly the covenant is applied, the broader the sweep of God's expectation for all Israel.
This realization dampens the charitable way we normally read this parashah, but it also provides us with a profoundly relevant perspective as we near S'lichot and the High Holy Days. Moses's words chill us when we reflect on the sense (one that, unquestionably, all of us have had) that we can remain religiously anonymous, hoping the offenses we have committed against God and against each other will pass unnoticed. Moses does not name the doubting Israelites, but we all know: he is talking about us.
Deuteronomy does not allow us to squirm away from its stern words of warning. We cannot lull ourselves into believing that the process of t'shuvah and the demands of the Days of Awe apply only to others. Everyone who is included in the preamble of Deuteronomy 29-men and women, young and old-is also called to account for how we uphold our obligations to God and to our fellow human beings.
Now we can begin to understand the significance (and look past the seeming redundancy) of why we read from Parashat Nitzavim/Vayeilech this week and again so soon on Yom Kippur. This is a portion rooted in the broadest possible understanding of Jewish covenant. It asserts that whether or not we like it, whether or not we feel embraced or fulfilled by our Judaism, we remain a part of Am Yisrael. Our parashah teaches that God is intimately acquainted with every Jew's most intimate and secret inner life (see 29:28 and 31:21); its inspiring message of universal Jewish inclusion comes alongside a sobering reminder of universal Jewish responsibility.
It is precisely such a moment of awakening-in which we see clearly who we are and what is expected of us-that our preparations at this time of year aspire toward. The clarity of this realization returns to us again in the imposing and inspiring pronouncement of S'lichot: Ki Anu amecha, v'Atah malkeinu, "We are Your people, and You are our Sovereign." Properly considered t'shuvah emerges from our recognition of God's bountiful covenant and of the demands it makes from us as Jews.
During these final days of Elul, our partnership in the covenant of Israel both buoys us up and weighs us down. We live in hope that God will deal mercifully with us, but feel trepidation about the reality that we have failed to meet God's expectations. Nevertheless, if we are faithful and serious, we will see that living in covenant means we are not alone-in either our hope or in our despair. This is the promise with which our parashah finally ends. Its words assure us that we never need to feel isolated, regardless of the fear or alienation that may have attended us through the year now ending. Holiness is all around us, and it surrounds us like an embrace when we sense the nearness of God and the nearness of each other. Judaism's promise of inclusion opens wide at this time of repentance, and through it we can be drawn into the arms of our community and back under the shelter of the people Israel.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel in Seattle, Washington. He serves on the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ