Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Parashat Nitzavim 2011

Parashat Nitzavim by Rabbi Sandra Kviat
24 September 2011

The matter is very near to you

”For this commandment that I command you today – it is not too baffling nor is it beyond reach…. …Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.

The idea of observing a commandment not just in our hearts but also in our mouths – in our relationship with other people is central in Jewish thought. The traditional lines of the shema which we recite every day or every Shabbat “uksharmtam leot al yadecha vehayu letotafot bein einecha” talks about the binding the words of God on our hands and between our eyes. This was interpreted literally hence the tefillin that orthodox Jews wear. However, as it is indicated in today’s parasha the words can be understood metaphorically meaning remembering Gods words in our hearts as well as our deeds.

What is interesting is that the commandment we are supposed to observe is not specified. Traditionally the phrase “this commandment” is taken to mean the whole Torah. However, what if choose to reconsider these words? Is there one commandment in Judaism, one thing or creed?

The closest Judaism has ever come to a creed was with Maimonides 13 principles which immediately got refuted by his contemporaries. Not having a creed has been a strength for Judaism as well as a stumbling block for many.

Would it not be nice to say: if you believe in this then you are Jewish? This is certainly a thought that comes to my mind when I have been bogged down in theological discussion with Christian friends of mine. Yet at the same time it is the strength of Judaism not to be pinpointed to one creed or one belief. The pluralism which exist in Jewish thought creates dynamism, creativity and democratisation.

The only monolithical saying we have as far as I can see is the idea that we do not have a monolithical saying.

Rabbi Lionel Blue puts it succinctly: ‘The centre of Judaism is neither a creed, nor a theology nor even an experience - the Torah knows little of such things – but a task!’

The centre of Judaism is a task – but which one? What are we supposed to do?

We put a lot of emphasis on action – on doing good deeds, on social action, on repairing the world both the Jewish as well as the non-Jewish world. We give to charity, recycle, buy fair-trade, cut carbon emissions and plant trees. Yet action without contemplation is not enough, just as contemplation without action is not either.

We are standing at the brink of Yom and our parasha tells us that “the matter” is not too difficult to grasp or too far away but right here in this life, in this moment. We cannot send somebody to retrieve it for us in heaven or beyond the sea. We have to grasp it ourselves, each one of us and figure out what its significance is to us.