Parashat Nitzavim

Creating an Experience of the All of You

By creating more experiences of community in which we feel connected to members of society whom we don't even know, we can increase our feelings of moral responsibility for one another.

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To us, reflecting on our contemporary social contract, Moses might say: Imagine yourself with all the people you see every day. Not the usual way, in stores and offices and homes, but in one crowd. As you mill around, get a new look, a good look, at everyone. Stop and talk to the people around you; strike up a conversation with a woodcutter, a CEO, and a congresswoman. Think of how certain words would sound if you were all hearing those words together: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

That would be a grand way to get around my freshman dilemma. Moses' strategy is to make us feel connected to all others, seen and unseen, even as we attach our minds to a universal covenant.

Recommitting the Social Contract

In our society, we don't have occasions to get together and recommit to the social contract in its loftiest form. In school, we learn about various founding covenantal moments--the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention; Seneca Falls and the March on Washington if we're lucky. But it is the rare teacher who can write us a Deuteronomy on those moments to be read by the new generation.

I have a modest proposal, and it starts in high schools. The closest thing we have to Nitzavim is the junior year course in American history. One adult, twenty or more teenagers, and a textbook. What we ought to do is expand that list. When young people learn about covenantal moments in American history, they should be joined by people from the wide community. The best textbooks and source readers try to do this when they draw on new trends in social history; they are the first drafts of our modern Deuteronomy.

High school graduation, too, should not be a ritual confined to students, their families, educators, and a few dignitaries. No, the ritual should be covenantal--the welcome of a new group of people by a crowd of woodcutters and water-carriers, elders and little kids, CEOs and congresswomen.

"You are standing…all of you," says Moses. We need to create some experience of the "all of you," to be sustained by the imagination. Otherwise, the commitment to others that generates social change will be something the new generation only hears about, while they read alone in the corner of the library. 

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.