I know some of you are Yiddish mavens; or at least you know more Yiddish than I do. But tell me if you know what this means: ES IZ SCHWER TZU SEIN A YID.
Yes—it means it’s hard to be a Jew.
Does everyone agree? I think we’d all probably agree that being Jewish, as rewarding as it is, is also challenging. We may be the Chosen People, but it’s a lot of responsibility. Whether it’s keeping kosher, or attending long services, or constantly doing mitzvot. It’s a lot. And sometimes, maybe especially this time of year, we may really feel the pressure. We try to maintain secular jobs and keep up with family and cooking and doing teshuvah. We try to live in the moment, but we are anticipating how big a brisket to get, or where we’ll be seated in the sanctuary, or when we’ll get out of services.
Or maybe that’s just me!
So: ES IZ SCHWER TZU SEIN A YID.
BUT this week’s first of two Parshiyot—Netzavim—tells us something a little different. Now remember that we’ve just come off all those curses of Ki Tavo, and we have been hearing Moshe’s long, obsessively long, instructions to the Jewish people about what they will have to do once he is no longer their leader. How they will have to conduct themselves in the Promised Land.
BUT Netzavim tells us that it’s really NOT SO HARD. And, after the nightmare curses that are described, and the demanding mitzvot that we are required to follow, this passage seems really strange, almost out of place. But I wonder if Moshe suddenly realizes that he’s not making Judaism very appealing. I wonder if he realizes that the people are dealing not only with the curses and the blessings and the high bar that God has set for them. They are also dealing with the impending death of their leader Moses. So perhaps he’s smart enough to lighten up.
So what does he tell them?
First, he tells them that the instructions are “not too baffling.” In other words, this shouldn’t be hard to understand. Don’t charge interest. Shoo away a mother bird before you take her eggs. Be kind to the widow and the orphan. How hard is that? And he also tells them: “It is not beyond reach.” In other words, there’s nothing here that a good, solid, everyday human being can do. You don’t have to be Superman or even Moshe to be able to follow these commandments.
And then he’s very clear—these instructions are not in the heavens. If they were in the heavens, then you’d say “Who among us can go to the heavens and get it for us?” The answer is that you don’t need someone to do that because the rules and regulations are not to be found in heaven. Nor is it “across the sea.” In those days, it must have seemed just as daunting to go to the heavens as it was to cross the sea. So, Moshe tells the Israelites: you don’t need someone to cross the sea to get this wisdom for you. Instead, he completes his speech with a little bit of cheerleading: “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
No one is going to claim that observing the principles of Judaism is a piece of cake. (In fact, if you think about it, the cake has to be kosher, and the kind of cake depends on what you’ve just eaten, etc. etc. etc.). NO. It’s not easy, and I don’t want to imply that it is. But at this time of year, I think that we tend to focus so much on the challenges that this section from Netzavim is a good reminder. We can be good Jews. We can experience joy in being Jewish. Because, ultimately, this “THING” (as the Torah calls it) is close to us—it’s in our hearts and our mouths. And Netzavim begins with everyone assembled—from the water drawer to the woodcutter, from the Kohanim to the “stranger within your camp”--EVERYONE has to hear this message, because EVERYONE, no matter what their station in life might be, EVERYONE is capable of walking in God’s ways and keeping his commandments. I think that kind of sense of shared responsibility and equality is part of what makes Judaism so beautiful.