RE:VERB FORTY-SEVEN / NITZAVIM VAYELECH / WITNESS
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Two minutes before the ceremony started the rabbi tapped me on the shoulder: one of the witnesses hadn’t arrived, would I mind being the second one to sign Naomi and Glenn’s Ketuba - marriage contract? Clearly, not an offer one can refuse, under most circumstances, and definitely not when the groom is already making his way down the aisle (to Disco music, actually, it was a 70’s theme wedding, Brooklyn style... quite different than the one I attend the previous weekend in Canada.) When the time came, I carefully wrote my full name, in Hebrew, on the bottom of the beautifully decorated document, testifying that this marriage is valid, and kosher, and good to go. It’s just a signature, but like all signatures, potentially crucial, legally binding, emotionally significant. How many times a day do we sign our names? And yet, sometimes, it’s a radically different act. What does it really mean to witness someone else’s life? What are the implications of testifying on someone’s behalf – in a court of law or under a canopy of love? Who am I when I am a ‘witness’?
Beyond the ritualistic and legalistic aspects, witnessing is a grand human gesture of trust, and of faith. Historically, the Jewish calendar was annually reorganized (just around this time of the year) based on the trusted eye witness accounts of at least two adults who clearly saw the new moon over Jerusalem. Criminals could only be convicted based on reliable witnesses, and couples would marry and divorce only in the presence of two trust worthy humans (males, traditionally) to bind the act. Much of this remains today in courts worldwide. I’m not sure where the hand on the Bible to swear to tell the truth etc. comes from, but it too is a testament to how serious this act is, and seeped in both basic human relations as well as the bigger, mysterious scheme of things.
To bear witness is to become part of history, to observe and impact life’s goings-on with a unique, if fleeting perspective: an external point of view, the bigger picture. It’s quite a responsibility. What if something goes wrong? What if what I saw is not what ‘really’ happened? What if these two should not be standing here, all in white, giggling, and privileged to wed?
But most of the time, witnessing is just a formality, an added form of insurance, extra liability coverage. We sign, we sigh, we move on. The witnessing will only come back to haunt us (those who witness and those who are witnessed) only when things go wrong and the small print will need to be examined and every fact will matter more. Crisis is when the witnessing is recalled most, called upon to remind, remember, uphold, and support the original intention, the goodwill that sometimes, if briefly, goes off the tracks. At times of challenge – witnesses are the reminder of what really matters, what counts.
A surprising witness shows up on the stand, in this week’s Torah episode – the double portions – Nitzavim Vayelech. Moses is on his deathbed, worried. Everybody knows what will happen next: Israel will enter the promised land, loot and pillage, forget all the big promises, discard the laws, worship every God but YHWA and assimilate away. Moses is not worried about his ratings, he’s worried about his legacy - that will be forgotten, that the people Israel, human, oh so human, will go astray and not be able to maintain their vows of commitment to the abstract God, to the system of laws and regulations that makes them so special.
So he summons a witness to remind them – us – of what the original vows were all about. The witness is a song, or rather, a book, or perhaps, a string of words and images. It is the Torah itself, uniquely named here as both ‘song’ or ‘poetry’ and also as ‘witness’. The role of scripture, of the sacred words, in this case, is to remind us of life’s larger journey, of our human destiny, of our responsibility to this planet, and to our inner lives. Here is what Moses, the tired poet, instructs us to do, then, now:
“Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be my witness against the people of Israel…That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites.” (D'varim 27: 19-21)
The Hebrew word for ‘witness’ is ‘ed’ – from the same root that means ‘eternal’.
In less than ten days a new moon will rise over the planet and 5770 years of history will be celebrated with apples and honey and blasts of shofars and prayers for a better year. We will come together to witness each other’s good will, best intentions, failures, pains, and hopes.
This season of High Holidays is all about getting back on track – how we feel, think, act, eat, love – and how we can do those better. Getting back on track requires this witnessing – we are each others’ witnesses just as the Torah – the poem that is the gist of Jewish life – is that which reminds us of the original premise, the original intent of the good life, the life committed to goodness.
No witness will be required to see the new moon rise and the New Year declared. We have evolved, and we now have trusted calendars. But witnesses are still required to bring people together in love, and to bring people together in worship and renewal of personal vows of love and life. Whose witness are you as this year begins? Who or what is your witness? What is the poem that will remind you, remind us, of what it’s all about?
(Stay tuned for next week’s Rosh Hashana Reverb special, and then we’re almost done…)