General, Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Citizen’s Rights and Teshuva

0 Comments 12 September 2017

In our modern world, there is a clear division between those that are citizens, and those that are not. As we approach the New Year and make amends for our past mistakes, Leah Shakdiel shows us how the Jewish tradition can teach us about striving for common good and inclusivity between all people instead of dividing people based on differences in ethnic origin.


By Leah Shakdiel

“Let the merit of the easterner (‘zhut ezrah’) blossom for rose-like (Israel), Remove sin, and sound powerfully from the heavenly abode, ‘I have forgiven!'”

These are the lines that begin with the Hebrew letters ז and ח in the liturgical poem named after its first line: “It is indeed true that passion rules us”, and arranged as an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet by Yom Tov Ben Yitzhak. The poem is placed among the prayers of the night of Yom Kippur, and this is the most ancient source in the Hebrew language in which I have managed to find the expression “citizen’s rights.” The meaning is entirely different from the current meaning of the expression.

First of all, the “citizen” is a common name with which the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud referred to Abraham (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, P. 15) based on what is written in Isaiah 41B, “Who aroused from the East”, a passage they interpreted (not according to the literal meaning, of course), as referring to Abraham, who was awakened by God to go from east to west, to Canaan, in order to command his sons and his household after his death to stay on the path of God by striving “to perform righteousness and justice ” (Genesis 18:19 ). The “righteous one” from the “east,” therefore, is granted here a title of a “citizen,” the complete opposite of what he referred to himself as, “a stranger and an inhabitant” (Genesis 23:4). He acted to spread his way in the world by “migration” and temporary “residence,” by merely “dwelling” in each place, even when he knew that the place in which he “dwells” is included in the land that was promised to his descendents after him. But his descendents were promised they would “become citizens” in the land, put down roots in it (like the meaning of this biblical root), and therefore their father too is recruited to this “citizenship.” He is the father of the nation of those who will become citizens and put down roots in this land.

Secondly, the “right” mentioned here is the good name that Abraham earned for himself in God’s account books, thanks to his good deeds. His account stands on “right.” We, on the other hand, his descendants, the Israeli nation, called here “rose” according to the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs (“I am a rose of Sharon, a rose of the valleys.”  says the beloved, Song of Songs 2:1 ), are full of sin and transgression, and our account stands on “obligation.” We have no chance of being acquitted by the law, we are not worthy of forgiveness, unless God will take Abraham’s “right” into consideration, unless our “ancestral merit” will stand for us. We beg therefore for forgiveness, for the passing of our sins from you, God, in the name of Abraham’s right. His account in the bank shall guarantee our account, and in the name of his right we ask for credit for one more year of life…

And in order to fit this “right of the citizen” to our current days and place, we must go through a turnover in all that has to do with the meaning of each one of these two charged words.

First, let us remember that the Torah prepares us for our lives as citizens in this land through a constant warning not to forget the foreigners and residents, for we ourselves have experienced the vulnerability of the life of the foreigner when we were in Egypt. For example:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him: The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”- Leviticus, 33-34

More than that, the Torah itself maintains that the land actually belongs to God only, and we are all merely “strangers and [temporary] residents” in it (Leviticus 25, 23). The state of foreignness is therefore not merely a historic memory meant to sustain a moral stand of empathy towards the other that lives amongst us; the state of foreignness is actually a permanent existential state which does not pass away even when we think we are settled in well-rooted “citizenship.” Perceiving the other who is among us implicates on our perception of ourselves. We are not allowed to stick to a complete dichotomy of “I am a citizen” as opposed to “the foreign other”; we and the foreigners both become partners in a society in which its citizenship includes the foreignness too. In my opinion, this consciousness enables, and requires us, to share all the rights that abound on us in virtue of our citizenship with all the residents of the land. This is the meaning in our days of “There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the proselyte who resides [with you]” Numbers 15:16. The concept of the modern citizen, therefore, is no longer based merely on the native farmer in an exclusive tribal society, it is founded rather on the inclusive perception of all humans as they are, and therefore is derived in European languages from the concept of urbanism (at which the word “citizen” hints), the community that gathered to act according to the ideological preference of the common good over the differences in the ethnic origin of all its sons and daughters. The “polis” belongs to “demos” and not to “ethnos,” and therefore in the modern nation state to the “politics” is “democratic” and not “technocratic.”

Secondly, the concept of “right” changes too, from the image of accumulation of good deeds in the bank account as an obligatory condition for every utility which man can produce during his lifetime—to something entirely different, for example in the clear wording of the American Declaration of Rights—all humans have inalienable rights. For we were all created in the image of God, in the same image, and therefore are equal in those rights. The right to live, the right to liberty, the right to personal and communal identity, the right to water, the right to shelter, the right to education, the right to start a family, the right to equal opportunities in life. No person needs to “earn” those rights, they are theirs to begin with, and no person is allowed to deny those rights to them. And one of man’s basic rights is the right to citizenship, meaning the right to be an active political subject who participates in the management and leadership of a certain state.

Our rose, then, can enjoy all the benefits of her country, Israel, but is not allowed to ignore the duty to be worthy of our nation’s father’s right, “the citizen” who lightened justice from the east. The State of Israel will flourish only if it will know how to act with righteousness and justice also towards the Palestinians who live among us and beside us.

“Citizen’s rights\flowered in 1948\for the rose
And there is room\for another nation\in its homeland
If you free yourself \from repression of another people\-a disastrous sin –
You too will hear our voice\and will accept us back: ‘I have forgiven!'”

Leah Shakdiel is a pre-military academy teacher for Rabbis for Human Rights and an  executive of “Oz Veshalom,” the religious peace movement in Israel.

Translation by Noah Noy and Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

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