Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Nitzavim 5775

Rabbi Janet Burden
12th September 2015

As Moses’ final oration draws to a close, the Biblical writer portrays him as offering the people words of encouragement as they prepare to enter the land.· But for me, the most powerful reassurance comes not in the overt message, but in an introductory clause, the first verse of Chapter 30. V’haya ki yavo-u aleicha kol ha-d’varim ha-eileh, ha-b’racha v’hak’lalah… “After all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse…”

So what significance can be found in this fragment?· If some academics are to be believed, these words are an indication that our Biblical text was written after both the blessing and the curse had already happened.· In other words, the Deuteronomist was writing or editing his work at least in the wake of the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE (if not, as some speculate, even after the fall of the first Temple in 586).·Previous generations of our people had already lived out the blessing of living in their own land, whereas our writer may have experienced true vulnerability.· His only consolation was to look forward to the swinging back of the pendulum of history, with its anticipated restoration of dispersed Israel to its homeland.· This was the extent of his prophecy.·

I have no doubt that such speculations are historically, literally true.· I have to say, I find them interesting and enlightening, as they force me to consider the text in its original context.· I find that this adds another layer of richness to engaging with the Bible.· But as a person actively seeking to live my life in a religious framework, I find them, on their own, to be unsatisfying.· I want to find the message I can take into my life today.·

So how do we experience these words now, hearing them from our own context, considering their prophetic import for our own lives?· “After all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse….”· Well, first of all, the text lets us know that although we are being presented what appears to be a clear choice between the blessing and the curse, between life and death – sometimes we are going to get it wrong. We are being told that both the blessing and the curse are inevitable; they are part of every human life.· We have to live out the consequences of our mistakes – which we may experience as a curse - but the feeling will not last forever.

OK.· So the text is acknowledging that we will experience both blessings and curses in our lives. But at the same time, there is a promise that transcends the whole of the cycle of blessings and curses.· “After all these things have come upon you….” – then what?· Israel will be gathered in and returned to its land.· What does that mean?· Does it mean, as the literalists would have it, that the end of days is being signalled right now by the creation of the state of Israel and the in-gathering of the Jews from the four corners of the earth?· Of course not.· For the Biblical writer, this was simply the greatest good he could imagine.· This is evident from how he continues.· He describes the future good of humankind in terms of agricultural increase.· In other words, he speaks of what he knows.

In passages such as this, the sacred nature of the Bible becomes clear, transcending the context of the original writer and his particular moment in human history.· A deeper message may be revealed if we are open to understanding these words on a symbolic, rather than a literal, level.·One such interpretation would be to understand the overarching promise that transcends both blessings and curses as truly a return from exile, but not necessarily physical exile from the land of Israel.· Exile can also be metaphysical, a state of the mind or the soul.· We live our lives, as it were, in exile from God.· Thus, I believe that our perpetual longing for a home is not for a physical place, but a metaphysical one. · This is reflected in one of the rabbinic names for God:· HaMakom, The Place. · It is towards God, our Source, that we yearn, and it is to God that we are called on to return.· We feel this acutely at this time of year, in this season approaching the High Holy Days.

It is no mere coincidence that these particular words are always read in the week before Rosh HaShanah.· Hear them, take them to your heart, for in them is your life.· Know that beyond the blessings, beyond the curses you have experienced in the past year, a greater process is at work.· It is nothing less than the process and promise of redemption, of ultimate meaning that transcends the human perception of evil and good in this world.· It is a foretaste of this redemption that we can experience over the Yamim Noraim, the ‘Days of Awe’ that lay before us, if only we can be open to it.

I wish you all well over the fast, and may you have a Shanah Tovah U’metukah - A good, and sweet, new year.