At the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, B’nai Israel are all standing before God, ready to again enter into the covenant with God first received back in Exodus, reaffirming that holy relationship established back at Mount Sinai.
A few generations have passed, so that those who were children back at Sinai are now present as the elders of this generation. The whole community is being addressed by Moshe, all those present. And then he reflects on the past generations, back to our earliest ancestors who lived long before this current crowd. For as we know, God promised to be God to Avraham and all of his future descendants. Now we are approaching an intriguing statement.
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone (29:13), 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 (29:14).
At first glance, it seems that those not present refers back to the past, but then what about future generations? This is worded in an interesting way: a covenant is being given both to those present and those not present. How can a covenantal agreement be made with people who are not there to make that commitment, to hear these words directly?
Imagine finding out that we are bound by our ancestors to this huge covenantal agreement from the past. How can children be party to a covenant that they did not, themselves, agree to? One answer to this conundrum, articulated by Rav Ashi in Talmud Shabbat 146a, is that in addition to all those standing there, the souls of all future Israelites, both descendants and converts alike, were also present. After all, verse 14 refers to those present as “those standing here with us” and those not present as “those who are not with us.” Since “standing” is something that only bodies do, the verse hints that despite their bodies not being present, future Israelites were there in spirit. This understanding is similar to the Mount Sinai experience: that all of our souls, past, present and future, were all there.
The 19th century commentator, the Malbim, probes this Talmudic interpretation. He asks, if only their souls were present, how could the covenant apply to both their souls and their bodies? If the covenant is only with the souls of future Israelites, the physical aspects of the covenant should not apply. To this he answers that although there is no direct connection between the souls of children and their parents, since each soul is a unique divine gift, there is a connection between their bodies. And here is where religion and science converge to truly understand the reality of this possibility.
Our souls are distinct, but our bodies are produced from the physical material, the DNA of our parents’ bodies. So not only were we there as disembodied souls, our bodies were also there within the bodies of our ancestors! We are indeed party to the covenant, body and soul. Despite our awareness of ourselves as unique individuals, we are the products of both our parents’ DNA as well as the particular history, circumstances, and decisions of our family, tribe, and nation. So much is placed under our feet, and so much is placed on our shoulders, without our having a say in the matter. And yet, despite all of that, we are held responsible as individuals. At the same time, it is a privilege to be part of a covenant with God, which our ancestors gifted to us.
When we return to these holiest days of the year, we are taking our bodies and our souls on a sacred journey to new experiences in this new year.