For the week ending 4 September 2021 / 27 Elul 5781

Parashat Nitzavim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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On the last day of his life, Moshe gathers all the people, young and old, lowly and exalted, men and women, in a final initiation. The covenant includes not only those who are present, but even those generations yet unborn. Moshe admonishes the people again to be extremely vigilant against idol worship, because despite having witnessed the abominations of Egypt, there will always be the temptation to experiment with foreign philosophies as a pretext for immorality.

Moshe describes the desolation of the Land of Israel that will result from failure to heed Hashem’s mitzvahs. Both their descendants and foreigners alike will remark on the singular desolation of the Land and its apparent inability to be sown or to produce crops. The conclusion will be apparent to all — that the Jewish People have forsaken the One Who protects them, in favor of powerless idols. Moshe promises, however, that the people will eventually repent after both the blessings and the curses have been fulfilled. And, however assimilated they will have become among the nations, Hashem will eventually bring them back to the Land of Israel. Moshe tells the people to remember that the Torah is not a remote impossibility, but rather that its fulfillment is within the grasp of every Jew. This Torah portion concludes with a dramatic choice between life and death, with Moshe exhorting the people to choose life.


There is Life on Mars

“And all the nations of the world will say, ‘Why did Hashem do so to this Land? Why this wrathfulness of great anger?’ And they will answer: ‘Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their Fathers, which He sealed with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt.’” (29:23)

Richard Rhodes writes in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”: “Out of the vulnerable Hungarian Jewish middle class came no fewer than seven of the twentieth century’s most exceptional scientists: in order of birth, Theodor von Kármán, George de Hevesy, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller. All seven left Hungary as young men; all seven proved unusually versatile as well as talented and made major contributions to science and technology; two among them, de Hevesy and Wigner, eventually won Nobel Prizes. The mystery of such a concentration of ability from so remote and provincial a place fascinated the community of science. Recalling that ‘galaxy of brilliant Hungarian expatriates,’ Otto Frisch remembers that his friend Fritz Houtermans, a theoretical physicist, proposed the popular theory that “these people were really visitors from Mars; for them it was difficult to speak without an accent that would give them away and therefore they chose to pretend to be Hungarians whose inability to speak any language without accent is well known.”

However refined the accent of a Jew, he will always sound like a Hungarian to the world. But the problem begins when we start to sound like Hungarians to ourselves — when we start to think that we are just the same as everyone else. But, more so, when we forget that we really are from Mars.

The Jews “fell from Mars,” three thousand years ago with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

From the birth of Adam until Mount Sinai, all mankind had an equal role in the purpose of Creation. With the giving of the Torah, the Director invited the Jewish People to step out of the chorus line, to go up to the mic and perform mankind’s soliloquy to its Creator. But being a star needs more that just star-quality. There’s a massive gap between potential and performance.

Our Sages teach that Sinai is connected to the word in Hebew sinah — which means “hatred.” When Moshe came down from the mountain, along with the Torah he brought anti-Semitism.

But that anti-Semitism is not absolute. It is conditional on how well we perform our starring role.

“And all the nations will say, ‘Why did Hashem do so to this Land? Why this wrathfulness of great anger?’ And they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their Fathers, that He sealed with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt.’”

There is no privilege without responsibility. Even in Hungary.

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