Friday, September 19, 2014

"Standing Together" - D'var Torah for Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-14) - September 19, 2014

What does it mean to stand together?
For the Israelites, poised to enter the Promised land,
the nature of their unity was clear.
The beginning of this week's Parashah depicts the scene that included all of the people who were gathered as a community to declare their acceptance of a special relationship with God:
"You stand this day
All of you
Before the Eternal your God
You tribal heads, you elders, you officials,
You men, women and children
The stranger who is with you in your camp
From your woodchopper to your water drawer
To enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God."
Everyone had a common sense of purpose: to reaffirm the original experience at Mount Sinai , when they perceived that God, who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, was offering them rules that would  guide them in their lives.
    This section proclaims that even members of future generations who hadn't yet been born would be a part of this timeless relationship.   And today, all branches of Judaism speak of the B’RIT, the covenant, each in their own way, but with a sense of the biblical foundation that encompasses all Jews today and in the past. 
    This past Wednesday marked the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.    There is no description in the annals of our nation’s history of a scene where "all the people" were standing together to accept this newly created document that would direct our national life, outlining rights and responsibilities for America's citizens.    What we do have is the written Constitution itself with signatures of those who met to craft its contents.    The Constitution's signers included some of most prominent members of the founding generation of leaders of the United States.  We know more and more about how some of them vehemently disagreed with one another on certain issues.   We also know that they deeply cared about their respective visions for our country as a land of freedom.  And now, one would hope that the symbols, customs and practices of our nation, including the run-up to national elections, continue to affirm that we do still stand for the value of E PLURIBUS UNUM – “out of many, One.” 
       Some Americans have suggested that our understanding of the constitution should reflect what they call "the intent of the framers" and nothing more.   That assertion echoes passages in the Torah which declared, "You shall not add anything to this law, nor shall you take anything away from it."  Even with that statement in the Torah, rabbinic Judaism and contemporary Jewish movements developed their own understanding of Jewish law, arriving at new interpretations and adding practices not contained in the original Torah text. The call of sages like Rabbi Akiva, who reportedly suggested that the rabbis "go out and see what the people are doing," recognized how a body of law could gradually and organically grow.   In Judaism, the "intent of the framers" may be claimed by one group or another, but most Jewish movements believe that even the rabbis of old wanted future generations to make Jewish law their own.   The term used in relation to interpreting the American constitution, "loose constructionism," would apply in a Jewish context not only to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but to some modern Orthodox rabbis as well.     
     Constitutional scholars, judges and many Americans continue to discuss how we can enable the document signed on September 17, 1787 to grow as our nation continues to move forward with changing demographics and newly-developing  economic and geo-political realities.  When it comes right down to it, we need to stand together as citizens of the United States in the way that the Israelites stood together so long ago.  We are part of a covenant of community in this country, reflected in the prayer for our country that we recite in our worship.  So may we find new ways of taking a vision of unity in the Torah and sharing it with our fellow citizens so that a vision of America will be one that reflects equality, inclusiveness, wisdom, justice and hope. 


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