The author argues that this portion provides a model of repentance that provides a perfect time to come out to our communities in a more forthright way. The portion ends with an admonishment to grow and change; to return to our true selves as the cycle of consolation ends and the book of life opens.
By Cynthia Hoffman
The Queer Community–Collectively–Comes Out
by Cynthia Hoffman on Thursday September 25, 2008 26 Elul 5768
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20
Nitzavim would seem to be the perfect “last Shabbat before Rosh HaShana” moment in Torah. It’s a reaffirmation and restatement of the various covenantal pieces of Chumash, reminding us not only of Brit ben haBetarim (the covenant between the pieces) where we were promised the land from this river to that one, and Brit Mila, which we wear as a sign upon our bodies, but also a recapitulation of Nitzavim at Sinai. It reiterates that the covenant(s) are not only made by the ones standing at the foot of the mountain (or under the stars in a vision) but are made for all time: “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.” (Devarim 29:13-14)
Midrash Tanhuma on Devarim 29:14 suggests that “those who are not with us here this day” means “the souls of all future Jews – present at this moment, as they had been at Mount Sinai.”
The Etz Chayim Chumash commentary asks, “What right did our ancestors have to impose the obligations of the covenant on us? Why do we have to feel bound by their actions?” and responds by suggesting that since others often do make choices and decisions for us in ways over which we have no control, it therefore makes sense to accept the covenant in that regard: “Maturity consists in accepting those conditions as the facts of our lives, rather than fantasizing about how our lives would have been easier had we been born otherwise.” The commentary further suggests that the phrase “All of you” (29:9) means that the community is greater than the sum of its parts.
On its surface, the deal seems pretty basic and it makes practical sense going into the New Year and the Days of Awe that we be reminded of its terms: believe in God and do what God says and God will give you the land from here to here, a life worth living, and a guideline for the way the world should be and how to make it that way; stop believing in God and following God’s commandments and God will take it away, maybe. But the covenant is there for us to grab hold of, and because it is a covenant made “for all time” it’s there for us no matter how the world might change between now and later. Each year we are offered the opportunity to make an active decision to rejoin the covenant, uncover our flaws, and do t’shuvah adnd return to our best selves so as to strengthen the community as a whole.
But what else is going on here? How else can we read this moment?
I want to suggest that in addition to doing our own personal t’shuvah, this might be the perfect time to come out to our communities in a more forthright way. Nitzavim continues the
repentance model saying, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching.” (Devarim 29:28) The “teaching” here referred to is the prohibition against idol worship, but how about another way to think about the verse instead? “Concealed acts”, acts known only to each individual are also known to God, and those sins are to be made straight between God and man. They are the personal ones, the private ones. As Rabbi Shefa Gold reminds us, as individuals, “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”
The “overt acts” are the ones that are the community’s responsibility. Society punishes, accommodates, and otherwise deals with those acts that are committed openly. They are the ones that the community manages, together.
Parshat Nitzavim ends with an admonishment to grow and change; to return to our true selves as the cycle of consolation ends and the book of life opens for Rosh HaShanah. Everyone can grow and learn new things. The redemptive nature of change and choice is what Devarim 30 is all about. “Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. […] No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)
What if, as an act of queer community t’shuvah this year, we take advantage while the possibility of change is in the air? We have new siddurim to share with the world, new ways of acknowledging as a collective community what our needs are, and how they differ (and also don’t!) from the needs of others. If our acts are no longer concealed, but are now overt, if we join the larger community, bring our own strengths to it with a willingness to share them, perhaps we take the opportunity to help the larger Jewish world grow and change with us?
Imagine what a new world we could create then!
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah.