Thursday, September 22, 2011

CONSERVING AND ADAPTING: NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH:5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

  NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH

CONSERVING AND ADAPTING


You are all of you standing [atem nitzavim] this day before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives and the stranger that is in the midst of the camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water. (Deut. 29:9-10).

The Hebrew word nitzavim in our text is richly suggestive.  The usual translation  you are standing” does not adequately capture its subtle nuances.  If the text simply meant “you are standing,” it would have read: atem omedim. What, then, does the verb nitzavim convey?

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1289-1363), the so-called Ba’al ha-Turim, points out that the word nitzavim is twice used to describe the stance of the Children of Israel in their collective experience in the wilderness.  The first instance describes how they were arrayed at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments:  Va-yityatzvu be-tachtit ha-har.  (Ex.  18:17).  The second time this verb is used is in our text, which describes its ratification. Accordingly, this verb describes the stance of Israel at the initiation of its Covenant with God and also at its final renewal by Moses at the end of his life. 
On its face, the Ba’al ha-Turim’s comment does not resolve the problem. Because the verb nitzavim describes the stance of the Israelites, it would seem that the more commonplace verb omedim could as easily have been used in both contexts.  Why, therefore was the more unusual verb nitzavim chosen?
According to Ramban, the verb nitzavim conveys the sense of omedim u-mezumanim –standing ready.  In contrast with the more static omedim—standing still it projects dynamic tension.  The Children of Israel are portrayed not merely as standing, but as standing by, ready for commitment and action. 
Rabbi Abraham Menachem Porto (Rapoport, d.1596), the author of the Minchah Belulah commentary on the Torah, detects a further nuance in the use the word nitzavim:  The noun form of the verb nitzavim, hityatzvut, conveys the sense of a vigorous standing up for a hotly disputed position. In their confrontation with Moses, Datan and Aviram were described as nitzavim.  In this sense, the word nitzavim means standing up for one’s principles, taking up cudgels in defense of one’s beliefs, demonstrating readiness to fight for one’s ideals just as Datan and Aviram were ready to fight and die for their beliefs—however mistaken those beliefs were.  The verb nitzavim is therefore appropriately used for the Covenant at Sinai and its ratification by a new generation forty years later.  The covenantal community is characterized by its willingness to stand up for the perpetuation of its commitments.
The interpretations of Ramban and the Minchah Belulah are not really dissimilar.  Both convey the notion of standing ready to take a stand and defend sincerely held convictions.
I should like to suggest a third interpretation of the term nitzavim.  The verb omedim describes a physical position.  The verb nitzavim, in contrast, describes an emotional, psychological, or spiritual attitude.  Omedim simply means to stand. Nitzavim means to stand ready, to stand for and to stand firm.  In the context of the acceptance of the Covenant and its subsequent affirmation, it suggests steadfast determination to preserve and conserve.  Those people who are nitzavim personalities resist winds of change that whittle away old certainties and weaken longstanding commitments.  The term nitzavim characterizes the quintessentially Jewish reverence for and commitment to preserve traditional norms and values.
Martin Luther King once declared that the person who stands firmly for nothing will fall for everything. Such an individual is the antithesis of the nitzavim personality type.
Parashat Nitzavim is often read together with Parashat Va-yelekh. They read as point and counterpoint. The opening theme of Nitzavim is, as we have seen, resistance to change, whereas the opening theme of Vayelekh is radical change.
 After a lifetime of inspired leadership, Moses announces that his passing is imminent and that he is to be succeeded by Joshua. The change is dramatic. Moses had been leader extraordinaire. Groomed to become the next Pharaoh, he was a well-trained and experienced military and political leader. Gifted with an innate moral compass, he was simply unable to compromise on absolute ethical ideals for personal gain—even at the cost of a brilliant future in Egypt. Unprecedented in his prophetic powers (he was the only prophet in direct, unbroken communication with God), he was lawgiver and social engineer par excellence. But all that was about to change, and a far less charismatic, far less powerful personality was to lead the Israelites to their destiny.
Point and counterpoint, the juxtaposition of Nitzavim and Vayelekh represents the dialectic tension between stability and change, conservation and progress, past and present/future. Prima facie, the antitheses are irreconcilable. Judaism, however, seizes both horns of the dilemma, remaining committed to the traditions of the past and successfully integrating them into the realia of the present. Ancient precedents shape and determine contemporary legal and ethical positions. The Bible and Talmud, for example, do not explicitly relate to such modern issues as brain death definition or genetic engineering, but using legal precedents in the Codes and the Responsa literature contemporary decisors have ruled on these and a host of other pressing issues.
Jewish practice conserves the old while incorporating it into the new. This is why Jewish law is called halakhah—walking forward. Rav Kook summarized this uniquely Jewish synthesis of the Nitzavim-Vayelekh dichotomy in his memorable dictum: ha-yashan yitchadesh ve- ha-chadash yitkadesh—The old is renewed and the new in sanctified.
Rav Kook’s formulation is an appropriate goal for every area of our lives—especially in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the season of return-teshuvah. If we are able to return to the ideals we held dear prior to our having become jaded by experience, or that have been dismissed because of disappointments and cynicism, our return will truly represent a healthy renewal of the old and a revitalization of our being. Conversely, if we can also sanctify what is new in our lives, we shall come to personify the Nitzavim-Vayelekh ideal.



Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE UNITED NATIONS ON PALESTINE: MY PIECE IN HUFFINGTON POST

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Dr. Abner Weiss

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The Dangerous Alternate Middle East Reality

Posted: 9/21/11 03:37 PM ET

In the lead-up to the Palestinian application for full membership in the United Nations later this week, we can expect nation after nation to vilify the Jewish state and to walk out when Prime Minister Netanyahu takes the microphone.

Demonization and isolation of Israel are familiar recurring nightmares for Jews, who are long accustomed to being reviled. For being "of their father the Devil," confined to ghettos and mehlas, mercilessly assaulted and expelled from country after country, and systematically exterminated as subhumanuntermenchen. Burgeoning anti-Zionism is the same anti-Semitic nightmare in contemporary garb.

The major U.N. blocks are among its most vocal exponents, confident of the backing of radicals and the anti-Israel media. Its initial salvo came not too long after the attenuation of collective guilt for failing to stop the Holocaust. At that time it took the form of the infamous "Zionism is racism" canard.

Beginning with Durban I, Israel has again been consistently demonized, delegitimized and subjected to economic and intellectual boycott. Israel is an open, functioning parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing freedom of religion and assembly, and protecting the right of minorities. Nevertheless, it has been portrayed as a racist, apartheid society. In the 1970s I was Chief Rabbi of the Provence of Natal and Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Natal. I was a very visible, vocal and high profile critic of apartheid when opposition to that evil regime was deemed treasonable. I was personally involved in the treason trial of the leadership of the National Union of South Africa Students. I bitterly resent the false and odious comparison.

But the delegitimization of the Jewish state has gone way beyond rhetoric and invective. Its very existence has come under threat. Located in the midst of Muslim states -- the Dar al Islam (The Realm of Islam) -- Israel is defined as the Dar al Harb (the Realm of the Sword, the not-yet-Muslim).

The Islamic Republic of Iran has threatened it with annihilation, and is developing the means to carry out its genocidal threat. It arms its Hezbollah agents in Lebanon and its Hamas allies in Gaza.

The Hamas leadership refuses to acknowledge and accept the right of Israel to exist. It has hurled many hundreds of rockets on civilian population centers, and has dispatched terror squads and suicide bombers into Israel. In a recent poll of Palestinian opinion -- conducted by Stanley Greenberg, leading pollster for the Democratic Party, in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, and sponsored by the Israel Project, 73 percent agreed with a quote from the Hamas charter on the need to kill all Jews. 

Ominously, two of Israel's most reliable partners for peace have done an about face. To bolster its standing in the Muslim world, the Islamist Turkish government has all but completely severed diplomatic, economic and military relations with the Jewish State. It has threatened to send its warships into Israeli waters to prevent the exploitation of natural gas reserves within those waters, and has thrown its full support behind the rejectionist Hamas leadership.

Equally ominous was the initial inaction of the Egyptian interim government when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked and occupied, and the subsequent comment of the acting Prime Minister that the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel is neither necessarily sacred nor permanent. This raises the specter of a possible Egyptian front in the event of another war -- and of 1948 and 1967 redux.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has claimed many victims. History itself has been its least noticed victim. Jerusalem was the capital of two previous Jewish commonwealths and the site of Judaism's holiest shrine. It has never been the capital of an Arab state, and yet it has not been recognized as the capital of the State of Israel. No other sovereign nation has been denied the right to name its own capital -- not even such rogue states as North Korea and Myanmar.

The fact that the Arabs attacked Israel and were vanquished in 1948, 1967 and 1973, losing land in the process, is irrelevant in the a-historical parallel universe constructed by supporters of the Palestinians and the rejectors of Israel. In contrast, land lost by Jews in those same wars, particularly in East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, is deemed permanently Palestinian. In the alternate Middle Eastern reality, this incongruence has been validated by international forums, and even by the United States. Tony Blair often speaks for the Quartet charged with propelling negotiations leading to the establishment of the State of Palestine. His favorite mantra is: "Justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel." What about the injustice of the solutions urged on Israel, and the insecurity inherent in the 1948 Armistice Line?

Israel accepted the United Nations' two-state solution in 1947, but its rejection by the invading Arab nations has long been conveniently forgotten. A number of Israeli Prime Ministers have reiterated their acceptance of the existence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, but their efforts to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians have largely been discounted. Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Northern Samaria, and the wrenching dislocation of its citizens from their homes, have not been validated. The risks it has taken for peace have been costly, bringing rockets to its cities and terror to its citizens. The Oslo Accords, premised upon the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel in peaceful coexistence, were surely an Israeli validation of Palestinian aspirations. All of this has been of little avail, and has all but been erased from the historical record. 

The Palestinian National Authority has been an elusive partner for peace. During the extensive settlement freeze, it rejected every reasonable compromise. It refused to recognize the Jewish character of the State of Israel, insisted on inundating Israel with millions of Palestinians, on making Israel's holiest Jewish shrines judenrein, and on Israel's acceptance of indefensible borders, no more than eight miles wide at a point closest to the greatest concentration of its citizens. Most recently, it has achieved rapprochement with rejectionist Hamas. It should come as no surprise that the same poll of Palestinian opinion conducted by Stanley Greenberg, revealed that only 34 percent of Palestinians questioned would accept the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a permanent solution to the conflict. And it is still Israel that is blamed for the breakdown of the peace process!

President Abbas is seeking United Nations recognition of Palestine. He has shamelessly declared that international recognition of the Palestinian State will empower him to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for sixty-three years of occupation. Obviously, his end game is the elimination of the sixty-three year old State of Israel. This too should come as no surprise. After all, his people annually observe Israel's repulsion of their invading armies as Nakba, the Catastrophe. 

This is a grave threat to the Jewish state, but Jews have survived every attempt at obliteration in the past and will surely do so again -- whatever may happen in the United Nations.