Being Present - Nobody can do this for us...

For 26 years I ran an organization that sends high school and college students abroad to do service work, students generally between the ages of 15 and 20, but the vast majority of them were under 18, that is, the age of majority. Like every other organization of its ilk, Global Routes, the one I founded, required parents to sign a liability release written by our lawyers whose language was so strong, that seemingly we could have done any manner of bad thing and been found not guilty in a civil proceeding. But, our lawyer offered, in point of fact those parents, though of legal age, could not sign away the rights of their minor children, which is to say, if we really screwed up, they could sue us and nothing they signed would prevent their getting a judgement in their favor on behalf of their children.

What does God say in Parshat Netzavim?
"I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day." "And with those who are not with us here this day..." That phrase could apply to many groups of people - it could refer to the ancestors of those who were present; it could refer to people who were not physically present with Moses but were rather residing elsewhere; or, as most often interpreted, it could refer to those who were to come later. As a matter of fact, if one follows the historicism of the Torah, the thinking is that Deuteronomy was written much later than the era when Moses lived, in the time during and following the exile after the destruction of the temple, and as such, this reference to those who would come after could have been written from the perspective of those who actually did come after.

I teach elementary school age children Hebrew and Prayer at my synagogue. One of the prayers we spend a lot of time on is the Avot v'Imahot (Fathers and Mothers), a prayer that honors our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. Why, I frequently ask the children, does the prayer say Elohei Avraham, V'Elohei Yitzhak, V'Elohei Ya'akov. Elohai Sarah, V'Elohei Rivkah, V'Elohei Rachel, V'Elohei Leah - the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. The God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah. That's a lot of repetition. Why go to such trouble? Why not just say God, or God of our ancestors? Clearly one obvious answer is the prayer is emphasizing that the God of Abraham is the same God as the God of Isaac and all the others; that God lives throughout time, and that by extension the God of Abraham, who was the same God as the God of Isaac, is the same God as the God of each of us. Does that mean that a deal or covenant worked out with our progenitor applies to us? or is binding on us?

In Parshat Netzavim God is very clear through the dictates of Moses. Follow God's teachings and things will go well for you; stray from these and that won't be the case. Again, depending on what one believes about the timing of the writing of the Torah, this admonition could be interpreted as a forewarning, or as an explanation for what has already occurred. As for us, are we bound by the covenant agreed to by our forebears, even though we're dealing with the same entity on the other side of agreement? Could they make a deal on our behalf?

If you follow our legal principles, clearly not. That parent can't sign her child's rights away, and likewise, according to that principle, the Israelites couldn't negotiate on our behalf. But another line of thinking argues that while we weren't there, we actually were. We are told at Passover that even today we must experience the Exodus as though we were actually there. And in some constructions of reality, time is not linear at all, and we could in fact have actually been there.

So, who ultimately were those people who were not there that day? It could have been the patriarchs and the matriarchs; it could have been us, but maybe it was simply those folks who were there that day but who were not engaged in the process. They were present without being present. And to how many of us does that apply today? God tells us what we need to do to stay on the right path, to keep moving genuinely forward, but we find ways to stray from that path, to worship those false idols that distract us and cause dis-ease. May we come back to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, who truly never left us but also demands that we do our part, fulfill our obligation, and agree to that covenant and be present.