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Nitzavim(Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

Cells of One Organism

Joey was having a rough time. His fourteen-year-old mind was beginning to challenge much of what he had always taken for granted. He didn't understand why his parents had never let him eat a cheeseburger at McDonald's when all of his buddies from Rockdale Public High school went there after school all the time. He just wanted to be with the rest of his friends.

"Mom, why can't you just let me go get a Big Mac with all the guys," Joey demanded.

"Listen, Joey, I'm no expert or scholar, but it has something to do with when we were all at Mount Sinai, heard God speak to us, and accepted His Torah and Laws," Joey's Mom said.

"Come on, Mom! You weren't there. I wasn't there. That's just an incredibly lame reason, if you ask me!" Joey declared.

What does that famous Midrash about all of us being at Sinai and accepting the Torah really mean? The Midrash appears in this week's portion and offers us an opportunity to delve into the matter.

The theme of Parshat Nitzavim is the special covenant God made with the Jewish people.

"You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers ... for you to enter into a covenant with Hashem, your God ... in order to establish you today as a people to Him and He will be a Lord to you ... and He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. NOT WITH YOU ALONE do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, your God, AND WITH WHOEVER IS NOT HERE WITH US TODAY." (Excerpts from Devarim 29:9-14)

Rashi comments: " 'Whoever is not here' means also to include the generations that will exist in the future."

Rashi's comments are based on Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3: "The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says 'with us today' and not 'standing' with us today."

Even if we accept that all of our souls were brought to Sinai and that in some way our souls accepted God's Torah as binding upon us, how could that acceptance and oath be valid? We certainly have no recollection of ever being present at Sinai and making an oath. Besides, an oath must be accepted by both a body and a soul together in order to be valid.

This is made clear in the Talmud Sanhedrin 91b. There it states that the relationship of body and soul can be compared to a relationship between a blind man and a lame man who are partners in crime. An orchard owner hired them to watch his orchard but forbade then from eating any fruit. Shortly thereafter, the watchmen couldn't resist. The blind man put the lame man on his shoulders and together they were able to take some fruit. The owner returned furious that they had taken his fruit.

The blind man said, "It couldn't have been me. I can't see!"

The lame man said, "It couldn't have been me. I can't walk!"

Whereupon the smart orchard owner placed the lame man on the blind man's shoulders and punished them together.

A soul cannot sin alone. A body cannot be kind alone. Reward and punishment can only apply to an entity that is the entire person, the body and soul together. Only the body and soul together has free will and is an image of God. And therefore, only a body and a soul together can accept oaths, especially as grandiose as the entire Torah.

So, how are we to understand the Midrash and the Rashi who claim that all of the generations were at Sinai and accepted the Torah?

Here we become aware of a fundamental concept of Jewish living. The Midrash does not mean that we are bound to the Torah because we personally made an oath to God at Sinai. While it may be true that our souls were there in some mystical way, our souls could not have accepted anything that would be binding. Rather, the Midrash means that our generation was at Sinai by dint of the entire original generation of Jews being at Sinai and accepting the Torah. The Jewish nation is one continuous entity that exists throughout history. Each generation may be comprised of new individual people but the continuous entity remains.

If you were to scientifically break down any living organism into individual cells, you would discover that after a period of years, there is not one cell left with which the organism was born. Yet, do we look at an older cow, with its brand new and different group of cells from when it was a calf, as a different cow than it was many years ago? Of course not. It is the same cow even though its cells have been regenerated.

The same is true of the Jewish nation. Individual generations of Jews die, just as cells of an organism do, but they are replaced with new generations. The Jewish nation, like the organism, remains intact. The Jewish nation of today's times is the same nation that existed at Sinai. Therefore, it is as if our generation was present at Sinai as well. The question of our personal acceptance of God's laws is only a question if we view ourselves as individuals. But we are not individuals. Each of us is a cell in the grand organism that is the Jewish people.

We must not relate to God as individuals. Rather, we come to God as part of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish nation. Rambam writes: (Laws of Repentance 3:11) "Whoever separates himself from the community, even though he does not commit transgressions, but merely divides himself from the congregation of Israel, does not perform the commandments with them, doesn't feel their pain, doesn't fast when they face tragedies, but lives his life in his own individual way as if he were not part of the nation, loses his portion in the World to Come."

Living our individual lives while always having the nation in mind is not a simple task, but it is the very lifeblood of being a Jew. There is no such thing as observing the Torah's laws while ignoring the predicaments and concerns of the nation. This is also why we should see any personal tragedy as part of the national tragedies of the Jewish people. As a result, mourners are always comforted with the statement, "May God comfort you AMONG THE OTHER MOURNERS OF (THE DESTRUCTION OF) ZION AND JERUSALEM."

Many rabbis have pointed out throughout the present crisis in Israel, it is a Mitzvah to read about the tragedies and even to concentrate upon the names and details of the victims' lives. If my nation is suffering, so must I. I should not be able to rest and relax until everyone in my nation is able to do so.

The same is true regarding the joyous times and celebrations of the Jewish nation. I must be involved in the glee and express my happiness and gratitude that my nation is experiencing during joyful times.

May God enable us only to share in national joy, and not have to feel national grief and suffering.

Published: August 24, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 5

(4) Zsolt, October 6, 2015 9:56 PM

mutual responsibility

Thank you for this beautiful scholarly illustration of our mutual interdependence.
Indeed only existing as "one man with one heart", in absolute mutual responsibility can we safeguard our continuing, unlikely survival as a Nation against all odds.

And it is exactly this mutual responsibility that we are protesting against, ignoring, forgetting most of the time.
Many times we have the feeling it is only external threat, common grief that keeps us together.
Interestingly those who constantly blame us, hate us, question us have no problems seeing us as a single Nation.
They find it very clear, self-understanding that "all of Israel are responsible for one another", considering all Jews responsible for any "crime/offense" they blame Jews or Israel for.

Our only effective and positive reaction, solution could be to show how really we are fully interconnected as cells of a single body above all our inherent diversity, argumentative nature even hatred. We can solve all our problems, moreover show a crucial positive example to others through our "super-natural" unity.

Eliyahu, October 7, 2015 1:41 PM

This World and the World to Come

Of course!

Begin with the ruling of the Rambam brought down in the article, and realize that he speaks of no mysticism but of a basic principle of reality--similarity of form. The Midrash Rabbah (50a) tells us that two angels with one mission are one angel. Liebnitz notes the same principle in his Identity of Indiscernibles. Finally in quantum physics we see this in such matters as the inseparable nature of indistinguishable states (seen most dramatically is the chemical principle of mass action), the principle of entanglement and boson gas condensates.

As we go from this world into the spiritual to the Ultimate--where to we head? Towards the G-d Who is Echad--Absolute Unity. The entire path to Olam HaBoh is unity. This is why when we encamped at Mount Sinai as, per Rashi, one man with one heart, we rose above that "mountain of hatred" and midah-keneged-midah (again, similarity of form), G-d "came" don the mountain and we received the Light of Torah. Hillel tells us that the whole of Torah is, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend." Rabbi Akiva then tells us that Klal (a general principle, or more, an assembly principle) of the Torah is "Love your fellow as yourself."

It can only be in this unity that we can be the Am HaSh-m, the People of G-d, and be a Light to the Nations (instead of appearing as hateful darkness--with that special demon of the dark, antisemtism). G-d stand by us as a shield, his Light providing ours, as long as the statement from the Shabbat Mincha Amidah prayer is true: "You are One, and Your Name is One, and who is like your nation Israel, one nation on earth."

(3) Mary, September 12, 2015 3:55 PM


He is right; while over time all of the cells of an organism are changed, new, replaced; the organism remains the same; this is true of a person, a whale or even as his example indicates a cow. This is also true of a group of people.

(2) donald, September 21, 2008 3:56 PM

based on devarim 29:9-14

the coment on only the souls of jews were standing at sinai on the day of the covanant, what about the other peoples that were standing there.

(1) Scott Granowski, September 30, 2005 12:00 AM

Cells of One Organism

As usual, Rabbi Leff goes to the core of the paradox of individual choice and corporate responsibility with the example of cellular organisms. Great article!

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