You Stand this Day, All of You
Moses looked out and they were all there: the machers, the big shots, those in positions of power, and also the nobodies, the day laborers and the dusty little kids who wandered the camp cheerfully escaping their mother’s watchful eyes.
There is some dispute among the commentators about who the identified leaders were, “you tribal heads, you elders, and you officers” (Deuteronomy 29:9). Targum Neofiti prefers “wise men” to elders and “commanders” to officers.1 Targum Yonatan2 elevates the heads of tribes to “chiefs of your Sanhedrin” and Sforno,3 a medieval Sephardi commentator, prefers “judges” to “elders,” pointing to a division of labor. The leaders of the tribes were the executive branch, “those who are entrusted with the scepter (shevet) of one who rules” while the officers, “have the power to force the litigants to accept the court’s decision.”
More interesting to me are those at the other end of the power spectrum. Women, mentioned after their children, were not really considered adults. Traditionally they were considered the responsibility of their husbands (ibid. Sforno, p. 852). Outsiders, non-Israelites living within the camp, were mentioned with the implication that they were the ones doing the most menial tasks in the community. The phrase, “from woodchopper to water drawer” (Deuteronomy 29:10) implies that these were not two distinct groups of workers, but those with a range of poorly paid jobs including washerman, gardener, and straw collector, often mentioned together in ancient Near Eastern texts.4
One Chasidic commentary5 attempts to show their interconnectedness, in a manner similar to the commentaries on the Ten Commandments. The commentary identifies ten different groups mentioned here (counting heads and tribes as two groups) and divides them into two parallel groups of five. The first, your heads, is juxtaposed to your infants, your tribes are juxtaposed to the women, your elders are juxtaposed to your converts, (the later Rabbinic understanding of the biblical ger or “resident alien”), your officers to the woodchoppers, and every man of Israel to your water carriers. Each pair is related to a different attribute. For example, the heads and the children share in chochma, “wisdom,” the word for children used here, taf, or “infant,” can also mean “a drop,” as in a small amount of wisdom. Tribes represent the attribute of expansion, as they all came forth from Jacob; women also represent expansion, “hiding the child, until it is time for him or her to come forth.” Chopping represents anger and thus the wood choppers were related to yirah, “fear” or “reverence,”which was related to the officers, the enforcers. And, drawing water is an act associated with love (and wells with romance), and thus with the people of Israel, “for whom God is the source of all love.” In this way, we understand that the leaders would not be complete without the rest of the community.
In the Reform Movement, we read this text not only on Shabbat Nitzavim, but also on Yom Kippur morning. It is a time of gathering for our communities and we look out to crowds not so different from Moses’s assembly. The machers of our congregation will be there, and also, those we see just once or twice a year. Let’s look a little more closely though this year. Who will we see in our sanctuaries? And who will not be present? Do our congregations reflect the makeup of our communities?
Just over a quarter of American Jews, eighteen and older, are single and have never married. Is that true of our congregations? Almost one in ten Jewish adults are divorced. Again, do our congregations include these adults? About 15% of American Jews were born outside the United States. Are we successfully welcoming these Jews from the Former Soviet Union, Israel, Iran, South and Central America, and other countries into our congregations? Twenty-one percent of Jewish adults do not have a college degree. Do we assume that everyone in our communities has a BA or graduate degree? Do people feel uncomfortable if they don’t? A fifth of all Jewish households are defined as low income. That’s a smaller proportion than the 29% of all U.S. households defined as low income, but again I wonder how accessible our congregations are to this part of our community.6
Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, wrote in an editorial last spring that, “LGBT individuals make up an estimated 10 percent of the general population, and it is thought that the same holds true in the Jewish community.”7 What sort of public recognition do these individuals and families receive in our congregations?
Finally the Institute for Jewish and Community Research has found that a growing number of African-American, Asian, Latino, and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community. Adding in those American Jews of Sephardi or Mizrachi heritage, Be’chol Lashon8 believes that Jews of color make up 20% of the U.S. Jewish population. Are one in five of our Temple board members, Federation leadership, and visible community leaders people of color?
The covenant of this portion was for all of Israel, not some specially favored subsegment of the community. Whatever one’s social status, background, or role in the community, there was a place for you to enter the covenant. Further, the commentaries help us see that there were many kinds of leaders, and that the leaders and the community were closely connected, interlinked with one another. “You stand here today, kulchem, all of you” (Deuteronomy 29:9). The Hebrew root related to the word kulchem, (all of you) is kaf-lamed-lamed, which conveys completion and perfection. Only as everyone is included can our covenant be completed or perfected. This Yom Kippur, as we read this moving Torah portion, let’s look carefully at the crowd and make sure that no one is missing from our communities.
1 Martin McNamara, Targum Neofiti 1: Deuteronomy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997),
2 Ernest G. Clarke, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Deuteronomy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 81
3 Raphael Pelcovitz, Sforno Commentary on the Torah (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1989),p. 852
4 Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), p. 278)
5 Betsalel Philip Edwards, Living Waters The Mei HaShiloach, A Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2001) p. 383
6 Jewish Virtual Library, A Division of the American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, National Jewish Population Survey of 2000–2001.
7 Lynn Schusterman, Op-Ed: “Embrace LGBT Jews as Vital Members of the Community,” June 18, 2010, JTA, The Global News Service of the Jewish People
8 Projects; Ethnic and Racial Diversity, the Be”Chol Lashon Initiative, Institute forJewish and Community Research
Originally published here: https://urj.org/learning/torah/archives/special/?syspage=article&item;_id=74683&printable;=1