In 2003, my parents, of blessed memory, became snowbirds. They spent the winter in Sarasota, Florida and the summer in Trumbull, Connecticut where my sister and I were raised. One year, during the February vacation, we took the kids to my parents, spent a few days all together, and then left them to enjoy their grandchildren for a few days.
David and I took the kids out for dinner before we left, and they didn’t stop bickering the entire time. As we prepared to drop them off, I said, “I hope you’re not going to behave like this after we leave!” and Phillip said, “No, that’s why we’re doing it now.”
So it is here, in a similar situation, that we find the Israelites preparing to enter the land of Israel after 40 years in the wilderness. A new generation of Israelites is poised at the edge of the Jordan River in the land of Moab, preparing to enter not only into the land, but into a covenantal relationship with God.
Wait, didn’t we do that at Sinai almost 40 years ago? Yes, but the people to whom Moses is speaking either hadn’t been born when we received the Torah, or they were too young. It’s time for renewal and for preparing our hearts and our minds.
We’re coming into the final Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, which begins next Friday evening. Our Torah reading is the combined parshiyot of Nitzvavim and Vayelekh. Atem Nitzavim hayom kul’khem lifnei Ado-nai Elo-haykhem, “You are standing upright today–all of you–before the Lord your God.” Kul’khem, “all of you, includes the tribal heads, elders and officials and all the men, women and children, the strangers in the camp, maytzayv aytzekha ad sho-av maymekha, “from the wood chopper to the one who draws water,” to enter into a covenant with God.
The people are then reminded of their behavior in the wilderness, how they sinned against God and behaved poorly, and Moses wanted to try and ensure that they wouldn’t behave that way once they got into the Promised Land. He wanted them to not behave the way their parents and grandparents, who perished in the wilderness, did. (See Ps. 95)
It’s clear from the text that the people won’t behave properly once they’re settled in the land. In Devarim 30:3 Moses tells the people that they will be exiled to a foreign land in the future, and/but they will return to God, who will take them back in love. Not only that, but our great commentator Rashi understands the verse to mean not only that God will take the people (including us) back, but that God will return with us. And that means, God went into exile with us.
What a powerful concept, that even when we’re at our worst, we’re not abandoned by God. Even when we feel exiled physically, emotionally or spiritually, God can have a presence in our lives. God cries with us and rejoices with us, and what God wants most, which is what any of us wants for the people we love and care about, is to choose blessing and life.
As we enter this High Holy season, may we be blessed to be the authors of our stories, guided by God as we begin a new year.