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The Covenant of Mutual Responsibility

Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The study of the parashah is not only the study of our past, our present, our future, but most significantly, it is the Word of God. If you know how to study it and plumb its infinite depths, you will see that the parashah always gives illumination and enables you to better respond to the challenges of the moment. The reading of Parashas Nitzavim always coincides with the High Holy Days and gives us guidance as to how we might best prepare ourselves for the awesome days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The stirring opening words, "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem - You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God,"[1] speak volumes. In gematria these words are the equivalent of "La'amod l'selichos - to stand before God and seek forgiveness." During the entire year we run from place to place, from activity to activity, and some of us run so fast that we forget why we are running, what our lives are all about.

But now, God's Day of Judgment is upon us and we are commanded to stand still, probe our souls, examine our hearts, and give an accounting of our lives. The passage goes on to enumerate the various strata of the population: the leaders, the elders, the officers, the men, the small children, the women, and the proselytes, down to the hewer of wood and the drawer of water. The question arises: Since the text already stated "all of you," why would the Torah find it necessary to mention each group separately? Surely they fall under the canopy of "all of you." So, since every word in the Torah is significant, why this redundancy?

The answer to this question can serve as our road map for life, and particularly for the season of High Holy Days. We are all responsible one for the other. Our destiny is intertwined. The Jewish people are like one body, and if just one joint is injured, the entire body hurts; if just one limb is amputated, the entire person is disabled. Similarly, if just one of us is missing, we are all diminished; if just one of us is guilty of a grievous wrong, all of us are implicated. To impress this teaching upon us, all our prayers are said in the plural, i.e., r'fa'einu - heal us - shema koleinu - hear our voices, and so on. This teaching is especially relevant to us today, for we are the generation that has been destined to experience the travails that accompany the birth pangs of Mashiach. Our Sages teach that one of the ways in which we may protect ourselves during that difficult period is to unify, to forgive and feel for one another. If we can do that, we can anticipate that God will forgive us as well.

To further reinforce this concept of mutual responsibility, the parashah teaches us: "The hidden [sins] are for Hashem, our God, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah."[2] From this we learn that we will not be held accountable for sins of individuals who are unknown to us, but for those violations that are public, we are all liable, for our very silence signals our consent. In Judaism there is an adage: "Shtikah k'hodaah - silence is acceptance."[3] When we see a wrong, when we witness an injustice, when we see our Torah laws violated and abandoned, we have a responsibility to speak out and remind our brethren of their higher calling: to live as Jews by Torah Law.

This responsibility to remind one another of our God-given destiny, of our Jewish heritage, is, in and of itself, a covenant. In the holy tongue, it is referred to as "areivus - mutual responsibility. That is why, prior to his death, Moses addressed each and every segment of the population and charged them all with this mission. Has this covenant of mutual responsibility remained the hallmark of our lives? Has it been borne out throughout the centuries? Yes and no.

On one hand, we, the Jewish people, can be separated by oceans and continents, language and culture; nevertheless, we have remained one. If our brethren in Russian, Ethiopia, or wherever they may be are oppressed, we hear their cry, and if our people in Israel are under attack, we are there. Yes, we are one. The covenant of mutual responsibility that Moses engraved upon our Jewish hearts has survived the centuries. But, on the other hand, we are also witness to alienation, complacency, and indifference. Those of us who are sensitive to this covenant of mutual responsibility must try to make all our brethren aware of it.


It is not only for those who are oppressed or in crisis that we must feel responsibility, but for those who are Torah-deprived and Jewishly impoverished as well. If our brethren are unaware of the meaning of our faith, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do everything in our power to make them aware of our mutual heritage.

Some situations, however, are beyond our capability, in which assimilation has been so all encompassing that individuals no longer identify as Jews and there is no way for us to reach them. Such cases fall under the umbrella of hidden. It is God Himself Who will bring them home. When Moses charged the nation with this covenant of mutual responsibility, he spoke to all of us, for all eternity. "Not with you alone do I seal this covenant ... but ... with whoever is not here with us today."[4]

From this we learn that every Yiddishe neshamah born in future generations was present and heard Moses' voice. Moses left nothing to chance, and in his message, he reminded us that God made His covenant with us for a special purpose: "[T]o establish you today as a people to Him, and that He be a God to you, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."[5] This, then, is our mission, our raison d'être as individuals and as a nation. If we would only take a few moments to contemplate these words, we would be filled with a sense of exhilaration. We have been granted the awesome privilege of being God's people. Can there be a greater calling than that? Tragically, however, so many of our people are unaware and do not know their true essence.


There is yet another interpretation to "Atem nitzavim - you are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God." In the previous parashah, the people were told of all the terrible and painful calamities that would befall them, and they became terrified. So much so, the Midrash teaches us, that they turned colors. Moses reassured them with the powerful opening words of our parashah: "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem.... You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God." In those words are to be found the secret of our miraculous survival.

No matter where destiny may lead us, no matter in which century, in which culture, in which country we may reside, we must always see ourselves standing before God; that is the secret of our miraculous survival. So it is that we have outlived the tyrants of history. We have seen the empires, the great powers of the world, soar to their zenith, only to disappear. From Pharaoh to Hitler to contemporary demagogues, we have experienced them all and triumphed, because, at all times, we stand before Hashem, our God. And even if we should forget our calling, the words, "Atem nitzavim hayom," come to redeem us. In gematria, that is the equivalent of "standing up for Selichos, asking forgiveness, and returning to God. The Almighty granted us a magnificent gift - Selichos, giving us the ability to rejuvenate ourselves by asking for His forgiveness. At first glance, this may appear to be an overwhelming task, but in this parashah we are also assured that "... this commandment that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant .... Rather, the matter is very near to you - in your mouth and in your heart - to perform it."[6] This covenant is embedded in our souls and is so deeply engraved on our hearts that we need only call out unto God and the covenant will emerge and transform us into the people that stood at Sinai.

Throughout the centuries, we have seen the amazing renewal of our people. Even those who appear to be hopelessly lost, can come back in an instant.


1. Deuteronomy 29:9.
2. Ibid. 29:28.
3. Tractate Yevamos 87b.
4. Deuteronomy 29:13-14.
5. Ibid. 29:12.
6. Ibid. 30:11, 14.

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