Drash on Parashat Nitzavim
Cantor David Bentley
Brisbane Progressive Jewish Congregation
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
This week's Parshah contains one of the most important statements in the Torah:
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
In other words the teachings of our Torah are within our easy reach, accessible to every single one of us, and we should not shrink from them with excuses. This is also a timely statement, coming only a day before Rosh Hashanah as we turn to our intense annual process of Cheshbon Nefesh, moral self-examination, asking ourselves, "What could I have done better in the last year? How can I improve in the year to come?"
It seems to me that Judaism demands that we do the "right" thing even when it's the "hard" thing. The Torah may be easily within reach, in the sense that it is easy to understand what it demands of us, but putting it into action is not always so easy. The "what" is easy but the "how" isn't.
We know the "what". It is laid out in plain, clear language. It consists of instructions like these: love your neighbour as yourself; pursue peace and justice; look after the Earth; protect the vulnerable. Knowing what it says is the easy part. It is a holy blueprint for living a life that improves our world and is uplifting to the human spirit. When we follow the blueprint consistently we act with integrity and build up our soul and grow as human beings. When we ignore it, when we act in ways that are not consistent with the blueprint, and especially when we do so knowingly and make excuses for our behaviour, it is as if we have chipped something off our soul. We diminish ourselves.
Following this blueprint often also influences those around us to be better too. This is part of the Covenant that we have accepted, to be a nation of priests, a holy nation, a light to the nations. It is our moral responsibility as Jews.
This is a responsibility that we need to uphold every day. We constantly face situations where we are called on to apply the teachings of our Torah. Doing so may often require courage, wisdom, discernment, willingness to make a sacrifice, be prepared to make the effort to heal a situation or right some wrong or, at the very least, be careful to avoid doing some small harm to another person. Doing what we know we must is a often a challenge. Do we rise to this challenge as often as we might? How often do we, instead, make some excuse? "It's not my problem," or "She'd never listen to me," or "It's too hard," or "I haven't got time to deal with it now." Perhaps we listen to, or even repeat, some juicy (i.e. nasty) piece of gossip about a neighbour; maybe we allow ourselves to lose our temper with a child who doesn't know better and only needed a little mild correction. Maybe I cut in on another driver, or perhaps I "borrowed" something from my workplace? It may seem that we face a never-ending stream of choices! No wonder it is a hard path. Given the nature of things it is certain that we will never make the right choice every time, no matter how hard we try.
But the more important point is that sometimes we don't bother to try. We make the easy choice even though we know it is not the right one. After we have done so we may even try to convince ourselves that what we did was justified and appropriate! As much as it is human nature to choose the path of least resistance, even when we know we should act better, so too is it very much part of our nature to then want to convince ourselves that what we did was fine. We say to ourselves, in effect, "I know I'm a good person, so what I did must have been the right thing, case closed."
Here is the truth: we know in our hearts that we are deceiving ourselves, that we have let ourselves (and others) down. We know that in choosing the easy thing, instead of the right thing, we have diminished ourselves and the world we live in. We have chipped another little piece off our soul with our error, mistake or poor choice. We suffer for it and we know that deep down.
By contrast, when we do what we know is right, despite the difficulties, how great that feels! It lifts us up to know that we have upheld our values in the face of opposition or temptation. This maintains our integrity, keeps us whole, helps us grow. At such times we feel again that we are truly made "b'tselem Elohim", in God's image.
With Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur only days away, with their promise of forgiveness and a fresh start regardless of the mistakes of the past year, how timely it is that our Parashah reminds us that we should follow the path that keeps us whole rather than the path of making excuses that erodes the soul.
Shanah Tovah, tikateivu l'chayyim, may we all be inscribed for a sweet year, a good year. And may we, by always striving to do what is right, make it so.