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Nitzavim: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman
Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.
– Nelson Mandela

As Moses’ life and the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land nears its end, Moses realizes the gravity of the moment. Despite all of the guidance and instruction he has given them during their forty-year sojourn, Moses has to let go and allow the Israelites to live on their own, without him. Like a parent about to send their child off to college, he uses his last moments with them to implore them to do the thing that so many parents impress upon their children: make good choices.

We made decisions every day, some are mundane, and others can have life-or-death consequences. Some affect just ourselves, most affect our families, our community, and others around us. Knowing why, and how, to make good choices is something that we learn from Torah over and over again.

Parashat Nitzavim is one of the small handful that we read multiple times during the year. We read it this week, as part of our weekly cycle, and we will read it again in twelve days, as we gather for Yom Kippur. In it, God, through Moses, reminds us that we have the choice between right and wrong, good and bad, life and death. “Choose life,” God implores us, pointing us toward a life full of joy and happiness.

Sadly, for some couples, choosing life simply isn’t an option. As I digest the gravity of the new anti-abortion law that went into effect in Texas this week, and the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to let it stand, my mind and heart are with the Jewish families who I know who have had to make the devastating decision to end a pregnancy. A colleague of mine shared her story publicly last year. In the past month I was called upon by a couple who had to make the decision to terminate, and I was able to assure them that doing so was supported by our tradition and its values. As a community that celebrates life with every lift of a Kiddush cup, we also know that in those tragic moments, the right, albeit painful, thing to do is to make that difficult decision.

It is tortuously ironic that the climactic words of this week’s portion are “choose life.”

In the portion they complement each other beautifully, framing an everlasting relationship of love between God and the Jewish people and guiding us towards the right and the good. But right now, when I read the words “choice” and “life” all I can think about are the countless women and men in Texas who no longer have the choice to pursue the best life for themselves.

As a husband and father to four wonderful women, as a human being who believes that every person is entitled to the dignity of controlling their own bodies, and as a rabbi who is keenly aware of our minority status and inspired by our tradition’s commitment to the moral good, in this moment I am carrying a mixture of anger, sadness, and fear.

In our tradition we have a concept called a nechemta. It comes from the word for “consolation,” and refers to the aspirational or hopeful point at the end of a teaching. I have to be honest and say that in this moment I am struggling to find one.

What makes anti-abortion laws so insidious is that they are anti-choice; they deny the independence and strip the autonomy of women, a callous and dehumanizing affront.

This new reality is not only a threat to every woman in this country, it is also a threat to us as Jews, a religious minority. At this moment our fellow Jews in Texas are prohibited from freely exercising our religious beliefs, “which mandates abortion when necessary to preserve the pregnant person’s well-being.”[1] Many of us are fearful that while this is the first of our religious differences of opinion to be legally proscribed, the future may bring more as a result of this precedent. So our task now is to continue to advocate on behalf our Torah and tradition, and maintain our commitment to choose a path towards the life we know to be one of blessing. Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Recognizing the fear that so many of us are holding right now, the nechemta I find in his wisdom is that we should not lose sight of the world we hope to inhabit, and challenge ourselves to will it into being with our words and deeds. On this final Shabbat of the Jewish year, as we are engrossed in vision what the new year 5782 may bring for us, may we be inspired to choose the path of hope, and use every fiber of our bodies and souls to pursue it.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg Weisman's signature, Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Rabbi Greg Weisman
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

[1] Reform Movement Joint Statement on Texas Anti-Abortion Law, September 1, 2021; https://www.ccarnet.org/reform-movement-joint-statement-leaders-deplore-texas-anti-abortion-law/#_edn1n

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