This week’s portion Netzavin warns against treating people differently from each other, giving some people privileges and depriving others of those same privilges.
A family who sends a moving van and flies over Canada to Alaska looks like they come from an established, wealthy, privileged community. A family who chooses to drive from Spokane to Alaska over the course of a week with a truck and an RV is perceived differently and often treated differently. Netzavim tells us that tribal leaders and wood choppers are the same.
In our most recent Elul audio I talked about our friends who are native Alaskans. The woman works for a network of native tribes and the man can do everything under the sun including home schooling their kids during a travel year. They have lived here in Spokane since our youngest son, Yair, was 5. Oscar, one of their children, is Yair’s best friend so when they needed a home base for this past year, we invited them to park their RV on our land and come and go as they pleased. It was a win/win for an extrovert like me to have fun, cool, and generous neighbors so close by and it was a huge win for Yair who had his best friend living just at the edge of the property. The fall of 2019 was fun-filled as we went on with our lives and they with theirs—sometimes coming together for family dinners ----- the kids learned what it was like to experience a kibbutz like atmosphere.
They traveled south for the winter of 2019-2020 to warmer weather to be with relatives and arrived back for what was supposed to be a month or two last March. But Covid was here and no one was going anywhere—we quarantined together and survived the emotional rollercoaster of the shutdown.
It’s now September and thanks, in part, to the Unites State’s declining relationship with Canada, the simple trip from Spokane to Alaska has been itself shut down.
They are back for the second time in a month, now forced to sell almost everything, figuring out how they can fit what is left into a horse trailer which will be loaded onto a barge across Washington state off the coast of Seattle.
I hear the dad whistling while I am writing this. He was just accused of nefarious schemes at the Canadian border and turned away—his wife and kids in tears and now, with a new plan, he is whistling. He is unloading the rented U-haul for the second time.
I have difficulty understanding how people find a way to persevere through such circumstances.
I have difficulty understanding how they don’t pick up the phone, and try to find someone who knows an insider who can just tell the Canadians they are fine, upstanding, good people. The injustice of it makes me and all of their friends feel crazy inside.
You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel,
טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃
your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer--
לְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃
to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the Adonai your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions;
לְמַ֣עַן הָקִֽים־אֹתְךָ֩ הַיּ֨וֹם ׀ ל֜וֹ לְעָ֗ם וְה֤וּא יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃
to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your Eternal One, as was promised to you and as was sworn to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone,
כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃
but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the ADONAI our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
The Torah knew that as human beings, we would privilege the elders and officials over the water drawers and the woodchoppers and we are warned against doing that. Everyone who accepts the covenant is welcome into the community of Adonai.
The Israelite people are poised to enter the promised land. Moses continues to recite before them a list of warnings –commonly known as blessings and curses----all good things to keep in mind as they set up their community—the curses are scary and they sound ominous, but the Torah says:
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—that you and your offspring would live--
The rabbis teach that U’vacharta B’chayyim, choose life, should be interpreted that we should live by the Torah and not die by it. So, if you need to break the sabbath to get to the hospital, you should surely do this.
This longheld interpretation focuses on life vs. death but this morning I want to focus on the choice aspect of the phrase—U’vachrta B’hayyim. Our Alaskan neighbors are choosing to sell their things, they are choosing to not wait another year, even though they know they can stay here as long as they want, that we love having them and the community we have built.
But the stuff was less important to them. Living for them is to return to their land—to choose life is to choose to get to Alaska sooner, to begin building their life anew.
We are all thinking about how to choose life in the days of the pandemic, in the days of online school, in the days of online teaching, in the days of recurring Covid symptoms, and families far far apart---even as I am preparing for the HHD I am wondering how I can choose the most life sustaining avenue to celebrate them.
The second to the last verse of Ps 27, vs. 13 says:
לׅׄוּלֵׅׄ֗אׅׄ הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים׃
Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of God in the land of the living…
Where is your eretz hayyim? Your land of the living? U’vacharta Hayyim—"Choose life” How will you choose the precious life you find in the land of the living?
I think that the way we personally answer these questions will lead us to our own solutions for many of the tough choices we are presented with today.
Listening to what makes us feel alive in the land of the living is to make the choice to choose life. Amen
Rabbi Elizabeth W. Goldstein
Hineni.Space posts brief daily offerings (Elul meditations, reflections, poetry, and melodies). There is a tradition to hear the shofar every day of the month of Elul and to recite the verses of Psalm 27.