“On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, …”
The Scout Oath. You’ve said it a hundred times at meetings. You promise to do your duty to God, your country, and yourself, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people, and to keep yourself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Sometimes when we don’t act according to the Scout Oath or Law, someone will remind us that we’ve promised to act in a certain way, and we are obligated to carry out that promise. But can we be obligated to do something when we don’t make a promise?
Sure can. It happened about 3,000 years ago, and is described in this week’s parasha, Nitzavim.
The parsha begins by Moses gathering the people together. It’s the day before he dies. He says “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord, your God.” He goes on to describe everyone who is gathered there – the heads of tribes, elders, officers, men, children, women, those who have converted and the people who draw water and chop wood. With everyone together, he has the people reaffirm their covenant with God – that the Jews will be God’s people, and will be rewarded with a good life in Israel. If they go astray and begin to believe that the good things they enjoy are due to their own work, and not God, and wander to idol worship, they will be cursed by being removed from the Land of Israel.
Having brought together all the Children of Israel, from the most distinguished to the most humble, Moses then joins together those in front of him with those to come until the end of time: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this curse, but with whomever is here, standing with us today before the Lord, our God, and with whomever is not here with us today.”
Moses ends by explaining that the Torah’s commandments are not far away: “It is not in heaven … Nor is it across the sea. … Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”
So, our ancestors accepted this covenant for themselves and for us generations ago. Even today, the parents of Jewish baby boys reaffirm the covenant for their sons with a bris and make similar promises at the naming of a baby girl.
But it’s up to us – you and me – to carry out what our parents and grandparents for thousands of years have promised us to do.
Next week we will start the new year. This is a good time to think about what it means to be Jewish, and pick some things that will reaffirm the promise of the generations to live a Jewish life: Give charity, do acts of kindness, thank God for the good things you have, study the Torah portion.
After all, Moses had confidence – he said you could do it!