Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:82
The Israelites stand before God and receive the covenant. They are encouraged to step up to the blessings and challenges of Torah.
NITZAVIM TELLS US that we stand before God in our wholeness. This completeness infuses us with the fullness of vitality, presence and beauty that is necessary in order to receive and give the blessings of covenantal love.
THE PROPHET EZEKIEL gives us a glimpse of the passionate partnership suggested in the meaning of covenant. We stand before God in our most fragile and raw vulnerability. From there we are lifted up into sovereignty:
I let you grow like the plants of the field; and you continued to grow up until you attained to womanhood, until your breasts became firm and your hair sprouted. You were still naked and bare when I passed by you and saw that your time for love had arrived. So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness, and I entered into a covenant with you by oath — declares the Lord God; thus you became Mine. I bathed you in water, and washed the blood off you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered garments… dressed you in silks. I decked you out in finery… I put a ring in your nose and earrings in your ears, and a splendid crown on your head. Your food was choice flour, honey and oil. You grew more and more beautiful, and became fit for royalty. (Ezekiel 16:8-13)
When we stand in our wholeness (including all our disparate parts from the elder and honored aspect of self to the most lowly woodcutter/water-carrier aspect (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)), we are privileged to pass into a covenant with God. To stand and receive this honor is to be given a splendid crown, be robed in finest silk, enjoy a royal repast and grow into our beauty. Covenantal love washes us clean and anoints us with the oil of our sovereignty. The path of covenantal love requires the maturing of our humanity as we become “fit for royalty,” as we grow into our essential Divinity. Through covenantal love we are lifted up, ennobled.
THE PROPHET HOSEA describes that day of covenant, the day when we stand before God in our wholeness. The covenant that we establish with God blesses the whole world, opens our hearts to all creatures, and ends violence.
In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts
of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the
ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land.
Thus I will let them lie down in safety. (Hosea 2:2)
This “safety” that Hosea describes comes in remembering that we are intimately related to all beings. We are part of them and they are part of us. We can lay down our weapons, put away our armor and clothe ourselves in the silks and embroidered garments of covenantal love.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AS WE STAND BEFORE GOD we are challenged to reclaim all the shards of self that have been broken off in trauma, all the lost pieces of self that we project on the “other,” all the parts of self that lie hidden behind walls of shame or pride. As we stand up in our integrity, the blessings of covenantal love begin to shine through our lives.
These blessings of covenantal love come as we stand before God and rise to the challenge that has been put before us. We grow into spiritual adults by standing up to face this challenge and not shying away from it. “I’ve put Life and Death in front of you, Blessing and Curse.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) The challenge that God gives us is to choose Life and Blessing, to turn away from Death (the force of destruction) and Curse (the negativity that limits us). Yet what sounds so very simple becomes so very confusing in the moment-to-moment choices that we face. The Mind becomes an expert in rationalizing whatever choice might bolster the ego’s ambitions or defenses. What looks like a blessing in one moment may turn out to be a curse in the next. What seems like a choice for Life entangles us in the forces of Death. The simple challenge of “choosing Life” becomes infinitely more subtle.
This spiritual challenge of Nitzavim can only be taken up when we learn how to “stand before God.” In standing fully before God, we can finally embrace our whole selves completely. We can take responsibility for our choices. In standing before God we become true partners in the work of Creation.
I WAS ONCE ASKED to lead High Holy Day services at a large Mindfulness retreat that was to be taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher whose reputation for gentleness and wisdom drew hundreds of followers. The retreat was scheduled during the Jewish Holidays, and the organizers thought there might be some Jews at the retreat who would benefit from the presence of a rabbi. In preparing for the retreat, I wrote to Thich Nhat Hanh to explain what we’d be doing at his gathering and I sent him a few books about Judaism so that he’d have a better understanding of the importance that these days held for his Jewish students.
At the opening session, he welcomed the Jews who would be celebrating their holy days at the retreat. In a tone that was both incisive and tender he said, “It is my understanding that the purpose of all Jewish practice is to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence… and that is Mindfulness.”
He understood that to stand in God’s presence means to stand outside the whirlwinds of change, anchored in the stillness of center, shining out the fullness of our own presence, attentive to the truth of this moment. From that still center, from that open-hearted awareness, the choice between Life and Death, Blessing and Curse at last becomes clear. Until we can stand before God in a state of calm, alert clarity, all the layers of distraction, turbulence and conditioning will rob from us the freedom of choice. And so as we rise to the challenge of choosing Life, we must learn to stand before God, or as Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence.”
I LIKE TO IMAGINE that Thich Nhat Hanh’s exposure to Jewish teaching deepened his understanding of the core practice of Mindfulness meditation, just as my own experience with Buddhist meditation has given me insights into how I might “live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence.” One way that I might live up to this ideal is to bless the Source of every gift I receive — each awakening, each meal, each opportunity for celebrating this unique moment as a culmination of my life’s journey. (The Tradition advises us to say 100 blessings a day in order to affirm our awareness of the Divine Presence, in an attempt to remain conscious amid the constant stream of distractions and acknowledge the unseen miracles that are the foundation of existence.)
The challenge of Nitzavim goes a step further. The continual awareness of God’s Presence, which we affirm through the act of blessing, leads us to truly stand before God and pass into a covenantal love affair. Covenantal love requires that we stand up, accept our soul’s mission and take action to manifest our purpose and calling. Nitzavim reminds us that we reject that mission at our peril, and not only at our own peril. Nitzavim tells us that when we “walk in the stubbornness of our heart, (that is, resist our true destiny and work) the wet will be swept away with the dry.” (Deuteronomy 29:18) (The innocent will suffer because of our negligence.) Nitzavim raises the stakes. Covenantal love calls forth the wisest and best from us and then warns us that there are consequences when we ignore that call.
GUIDANCE FOR PRACTICE
There are three signs of the covenant that serve as reminders of our obligations and tools for awareness as we enter into partnership with God.
- THE FIRST SIGN OF THE COVENANT IS THE RAINBOW, which God establishes as a remembrance of the love and commitment between the Source — and all of Life, forever. The Rainbow is a reminder that renewal follows devastation; and that beauty is born from opposites (sun and rain) converging in paradox. We are reminded by the Rainbow that our covenant with God is large enough to include all the colors or aspects of faith, even the ones that seem to contradict each other.
- THE SECOND SIGN OF THE COVENANT IS SHABBAT. We are given this sacred time of renewal each week so that we might rest and enjoy the fruits of Creation. We are bathed and anointed, dressed in silks, and decked out in finery. The splendid crown of Shabbat is placed upon our heads. We become fit for royalty. On Shabbat we are led to the place where covenantal love may be consummated.
- THE THIRD SIGN OF THE COVENANT IS CIRCUMCISION. Most literally, circumcision is the ritual cutting away of the foreskin which covers the glans of the penis. It is a ritual that dates back to prehistoric times and till this day is practiced by many peoples. For Jews it became not only a religious practice but a national one, representing a sign of tribal inclusion.
AT A TIME IN OUR HISTORY when women are standing up to claim their rightful and honored place in the tribe, how is it possible to put forth a sign of inclusion that is by definition, exclusively male?
Fortunately, there is another kind of circumcision described in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and in the writings of the prophets which is called the “circumcision of the heart.” Earlier in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to circumcise our hearts, (Deuteronomy 10:16) and here in Nitzavim we are told that God “…will circumcise your heart and your descendants’ hearts so you can love God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
Here it sounds as if it is God performing the circumcision. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? Who is to perform this most important ritual for which our lives and love depend, God or us?
Because circumcision is the sign or reminder of covenantal love, which denotes mutuality, I believe it requires a sacred partnership in order to accomplish it. We must lay our hearts bare, become aware of just when and why our heart closes, confess to our own hard-heartedness, and offer up our stubborn heart to the Power-that-transforms.
Circumcision of the Heart
THE PRACTICE FOR THIS WEEK OF NITZAVIM is to take special care to notice when your heart closes. Really notice. Does your heart close when you feel judged? When you are in the presence of suffering? When you are stuck in traffic? When you disagree? When you get too busy? When you’re in pain? When you read the newspaper?
IN THE MOMENT when you notice that your heart is closing, take a slow gentle breath into the heart and ask God for help.
Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.