You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Nitzavim.
From Rabbi Yael Levy
A Way In Jewish Mindfulness:
We Stand Here Today
As we come into this last week of the year,
The Torah calls,
You stand here today with everyone,
With all those who came before you,
And with all those who will come after.
You stand here with all those you love,
And with all those with whom you deeply disagree.
You stand here today with earth and all beings,
To cross over into a renewed relationship
With the Unfolding Mystery of All Life.
How do we cross? How do we enter the New Year?
The Infinite Life Force, commands:
Go with Love.
Love with all your heart and with all your soul
And walk in the ways of love.
The soul trembles,
It cries: Love in the face of all this horror and pain?
This is not too great a task for you,
The Infinite responds,
It is in your mouth and heart to do.
Choose to love.
Love those you love with all your heart, soul and strength.
Love the trees, sky, rivers and rocks.
Let this loving make you strong.
There will be times and places where it will be impossible to love.
Let that be.
There is plenty of opportunity to exercise and expand the capacity to love.
As we lift our eyes to a New Year,
Let us hear the Infinite call, Choose life.
Love into the Unfolding Mystery.
Listen to the voices of creation.
Align with the expanse of possibility not yet seen or imagined.
This is in your hands, heart and mouth to do.
-Rabbi Yael Levy
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Return To Your Hearts
You will return to your hearts and you will hear the call
You will return to your hearts
How will we hear?
Through the silences
We hear more
You will hear the call
I became a different human being
When I heard a voice praying
A voice is always calling
You will hear
From Introduction to Orot HaTeshuvah
From Rishe Groner
“What is hidden belongs to the Divine
and what is revealed is for us and our children”
The original Hebrew has a delightful rhyme to it,
“Hanistarot l’Hashem elokeinu; v’haniglot lanu ul’vaneinu”
Makes a good bumper sticker or fridge magnet, along with so many of the other catchphrases of the book of Devarim, the book that we are about to finish in just a few weeks, along with the entire Torah that we’ve read this year.
And as we approach the final Shabbat of the year, this week’s Torah portion gives us a moment to reflect on the very human experience we are all experiencing.
Of a life that is more often than not, unknown –
where so much is hidden to our human eyes
and yet- THAT is the reality,
far more than the stuff we see the rest of the time
The revealed things, that which is obvious in front of our eyes
– that’s for us to work on, to process, to go through
to educate our children, to carry for our communities
to understand and internalize and do the best we can
But the hidden?
That’s all about taking a step into the unknown
and knowing that God is there to hold it all.
This is one of those bizarre human conundrums.
On one hand, we are primed to know, and want to know. We want the details, we want the information, we want to understand.
And yet, the essence of the matter, the deepest core, is something we don’t have the capacity to ever truly understand – it is the mystery of life.
So what can we do?
Another bumper sticker of the Parsha is one of my very favorite passages in the Torah, where Moshe, in what is still his Last Will and Testament, says…
“This Mitzvah – this commandment, this instruction, this way of connecting and bonding with the Divine – that I am instructing you about today…
Is not concealed from you – nor is it far from you.”
The passage continues:
“It’s not in the heavens, that you might say – who is going to ascend to the heavens and take it for us, so we can listen to it and observe it?
“And it’s not across the seas, that we might say – who is going to cross the seas, and take it for us so we might listen to it and observe it”
Finally, we are gifted with one last bumper sticker:
“Ki karov elecha hadavar me’od, b’ficha uv’ilvavcha, la’asoto”
“Because the Thing is very close to you – in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you may DO IT”
The point isn’t that some things are hidden and concealed, and some are totally obvious before our eyes.
The point is that we are on a need to know basis.
As we come into new awareness, and new consciousness – the hidden things come to light, and we are aware of our path; and yet simultaneously, we see how much more of a mystery there is left to go.
We realize that even when it’s all mysterious and unknown, what we are meant to be doing – the Mitzvot that we are instructed to do, the ways that we live in the path of Divine alignment – are accessible to us.
Because otherwise, we wouldn’t be there.
Taking a step, step by step, to get to the top of that mountain.
Sure, sometimes it looks super far. And we think it’s time to put on our diving outfit or our skyclimbing shoes and try and reach somewhere that’s almost impossible.
But when we start to take the step, to do the Thing, we realize that it’s right here – it’s close to us, when we Do it.
It’s in our heart.
It’s in our mouth.
It’s in the words we say, the songs we sing, the air we breathe. The way we take God into ourselves and allow God to come forth from within ourselves, and live a life that is in awareness and surrender to the Divine.
It’s in our hearts, the way that we connect to ourselves and to others, to our communities and to all of creation. When we turn inward, with love, and realize that we are the universe in its entirety.
Sometimes things feel really big and scary.
We are in a time of transition now – the end of the Jewish year is this Shabbat, and for many in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re also facing a new school year.
Personally, I’m in a moment of deep transition – from my Lunar Hebrew birthday, which took place just yesterday, to my relocation to a new town this week, in Beacon, New York.
On my birthday, a day filled with strong spiritual energy that I wanted to harness with as much ritual as possible, I found that most of my time was spent doing the bare basics. Just moving forward, step by tiny step.
Doing what was accessible to me. What was very close.
Instead of a grand prayer session in the forest, I found myself learning to pray with every moment of my day:
From making myself delicious meals, to going for a nice walk, to doing the work I had to do, and just simply tidying up.
The type of adult self-care that we often don’t think about as part of our spiritual practice, but is practice of the highest level.
Because it’s what’s in front of us, it’s what we see visibly, it’s what’s revealed to us
– and yet we have no concept of the extent of the Divine consciousness that pervades those actions, because they are the hidden things, those that belong to God, that we can only catch a glimpse of here and there.
And yet we still do it. We walk the path.
We move forward, step by step, into the unknown.
The final bumper sticker of the Parsha that I absolutely love, is the one I want to leave us with, not only for this Shabbat, but for the New Year to come.
The Torah tells us – Today you have in front of you all the opposites. Life and death, good and bad.
And I’m telling you, that you have full free choice.
But really? Here’s the recommendation.
Choose to move in ways that enliven you, in ways that excite you, and in ways that scare you.
Choose to move along the path of alignment, even when it’s hard and scary and bizarre and unknown.
Choose to make this year the best year yet
even with everything swirling around us that feels hard
Because God knows
The mystery is there
We don’t know
but we can move forward, to the answer that’s inside of us.
Blessing you all in so many ways….
For a Shabbat of alignment, of standing strong, of feeling the power we have to choose Life, to be the best people we can be, and to know that everything we’ve done this year has been our very best
For a Shabbat of peace, of tranquility, of feeling the coalescence of all the hard work we’ve done this year, and knowing that as we sit and pray on Rosh Hashanah this year, we are all going to get a spectacular A for effort on the year that’s been
Choosing to Choose
NITZAVIM | ROSH HASHANAH
BY RABBI JAN UHRBACH
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: All the animals of the creation—were created in their full-grown stature, they were created with their consent, and according to their form (Rosh Hashanah 11a).
The rabbis taught that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world, or by some accounts, the sixth day of creation, the day that humanity was created. Liturgically, the day is seen as more than just an anniversary. We pray “Hayom Harat Olam,” today the world is born, suggesting that the world, humanity, and each of us individually, are created “today,” every Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s teaching about the process of creation suggests something startling: each creature has a measure of choice in its own formation; its “consent” is required. Indeed, according to the great Hasidic master the Sefat Emet, at Creation, l’da-atan nivr’u means that all creatures chose for themselves—each one its own particular form.
This idea will be familiar to anyone who has engaged in creative work of any kind. At some point in the creative process, the object being created begins to direct its own form. The same is true of human beings. Of course we do not have complete free reign to “self-create.” We are all born with particular physical, intellectual, and emotional characteristics, and into particular social and familial structures. But the phrase “today the world is born,” suggesting as it does a passive process, is misleading. Within the realm of things within our control, we actively create ourselves on Rosh Hashanah, and indeed every day. And we do so through our choices.
See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . Life and death I place before you, blessing and curse. Choose life (Deut. 30:15, 19).
Why does our Torah reading this week need to command us to choose life, and what does that really mean? Reading the command in light of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s teaching, we may understand the Torah to be reminding us that all choices are creative acts. Each and every one of us creates ourselves constantly through the choices we make. In the end, we are the sum total of our choices; we are beings freely created according to the form we choose, not only at creation, but at every moment.
To choose life we have to actively, consciously, and continually choose who we will become. We have to choose to create ourselves and our lives, rather than passively allow ourselves to be shaped. At the most basic level, we have to choose to choose.
The command to choose life expresses a reality that life energy comes from the exercise and expression of the will, from making choices. We are most fully alive when we are actively, consciously engaged in the process of choosing who to be. The moment that we allow ourselves to be a certain way simply because we have always been that way, or because society or a particular person pressures us to be that way, or any other reason other than a conscious, thoughtful decision to be a certain way—we have died a little. We have chosen death, not life.
And this choice itself—to embrace our power to choose; to actively, consciously create ourselves—is neither intuitively obvious, nor easy. The opportunity on Rosh Hashanah to create ourselves anew is a tremendous privilege and also a tremendous responsibility.
The Talmud teaches of the three books open on Rosh Hashanah:
Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the beinonim, intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death; the beinonim—they are suspended and stand from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not merit, they are inscribed in the book of death (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
A powerful Hasidic interpretation (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, quoted in Netivot Shalom) understands this as follows:
This means that they open three new books, in which each person must inscribe themselves for the coming year.
As uncomfortable as some of us are with the idea of God sitting in judgment and decreeing life or death, this reading may be even more challenging, because it puts the responsibility squarely on us. We have to choose.
Perhaps this is one reason why we need to be commanded to choose life. All too often, we readily relinquish our power to choose because we don’t want to bear responsibility for our choices, or we simply don’t know what to choose. Other times, we do know what to choose, but the right choice feels too demanding; it involves too much work, loss, change, or risk.
And we have many strategies to avoid choosing. Sometimes we’re passive, allowing life to simply happen to us. Other times we’re reactive and reflexive, acting on impulse without self-reflection, thought, and discipline. And often, we avoid having to make choices today by simply sticking with the choice we made yesterday, for no other reason than that we made it. This particular strategy can border on the idolatrous; we pledge our primary allegiance to our own prior choices and commitments.
Ultimately, we are free to choose, but we are not free from the burden of having to choose. To fail to choose is itself a choice, and it is not the choice of life and blessing.
Granted, it is not easy to know what to choose. But the fact that we don’t know how to choose doesn’t let us off the hook. We have to choose to become people who will know how to choose. Each choice that we make changes us a little and changes the way we perceive and decide the next choice. With each life decision we make, we become someone else, and it is that new person who will make the next choice. So our question is not only, who will I be if I make this choice, but, will making this choice turn me into someone who is better able to make the next choice? What will this choice teach me? Will it increase my courage, my strength? Will it deepen my capacity to love, sensitize me, educate me? Will it help me to tolerate greater depth, rise to the next challenge? Will it shore up my moral footing, or will it make me more susceptible to ever greater ethical compromise? How will this choice not only reflect, but shape, my character?
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that all the animals were created in their full-grown stature. This is perhaps a difference between the original creation and the ongoing process of creation, and between the animals and humans. We are not created full-grown, in our final form. We grow into who we are meant to be. And we have to grow also into our capacity to choose, we have to grow into ba’alei bechira, truly free, “masters” of choice.
From My Jewish Learning
Living Like it’s ‘Hayom’ Every Day
Moses’ final address to the Jewish people takes on added significance because of its proximity to his death.
BY RABBA RACHEL KOHL FINEGOLD
Parashat Nitzavim begins on the final day of Moses’ life. The text emphasizes the significance of this with its repetition of the word hayom — today — five times in the first six verses of the portion. According to the biblical commentator Rashi, Moses knew which day he would die. He knows this is his last chance to address the nation.
There is a principle in Jewish law that before death, a person is assumed to be speaking sincerely. Divrei sh’chiv mera — a person’s words on their deathbed are as legally binding as a written contract, the Talmud says. Secular law has a similar concept, called the dying declaration. We implicitly understand that when someone is close to death, they are speaking with deep sincerity. Regardless of whether those moments are difficult or serene, they carry great weight. We listen carefully; a person’s last words carry deep significance.
On the final day of his life, Moses speaks words that are not new, but serve to refocus the nation on their relationship with God. The medieval Spanish scholar Ramban describes the events of Nitzavim as a repetition of the covenant of Sinai. On a practical level, this makes sense. Moses is speaking to a new generation who were either not present at Mount Sinai, or were there as children. It is an opportunity for him to reiterate the national commitment for a new generation who are about to enter the land of Israel.
But repeating the covenant and the rituals of Sinai also takes on extra significance because this was Moses’ last day on earth. Even if the nation has heard these lessons repeatedly over the years, even though Moses has taught again and again about God’s promise to our patriarchs and about the importance of following God’s ways, the nation will listen on this day like never before. Hayom – on his final momentous day – Moses knew this was his chance to make a greater impact than he could have made on any other day of his life.
We read Nitzavim during the season of teshuvah, or repentance, in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah. In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis teach: Repent one day before your death. But of course, we don’t know when our final day will be. Moses was unique in having this knowledge, and was able to use his final hours wisely, to make his dying declaration really count.
Obviously, we cannot possibly adhere to this advice literally. So perhaps the imperative here is to feel the urgency of our words and actions every single day, to live each day as if it were our last. What if we spoke each sentence as if it were our dying declaration, as if we knew people would remember those words for a long time?
The process of teshuvah is one of realigning ourselves each day with the honesty and integrity of someone who is on their deathbed. This does not need to be morbid or depressing. It is a reminder to live every day to its fullest, to speak always with sincerity, and to focus on what is truly important. When worrying about money or business, when arguing with a spouse, when getting frustrated with children or friends, we might choose to live that day as if it were our last. In a moment of frustration, we might ask ourselves, “At the end of my life, is this really going to matter?”
In this way, we might reach the power of hayom every single day.
From Reconstructing Judaism
By Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
Ha’edoti va’chem ha’yom et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz: ha’chayim v’ha’mavet natati l’fanecha, ha’bracha v’ha’klala. u’vacharta ba’chayim, l’ma’an tichyeh atah v’zarecha.
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. I praise the wisdom of our sages, who carefully calibrated the calendar so that we would always be hearing these words to prime us for the New Year. It is Moses’ final oration (although a coda of an epic poem and a blessing will follow), and ends with the stirring call that has come to define the Jewish character and especially this season of the Jewish year: choose life. Moses’ words are so timeless that I feel he could be delivering them in our synagogues today.
Moses himself makes clear that he is speaking across the generations, addressing every single individual, from the leaders to the woodchoppers, men, women and children, and even those who are not yet present to hear him speak. He calls us to do teshuvah, to return to God, to our people, to our land. He calls us to open our hearts, “to love the Source of Life with all of your heart and soul.” (30:6) He insists that this change of heart is possible, and that we do not need intermediaries to accomplish it:
Surely this teaching which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the thing is very close close to you, in your own mouth and in your own heart, that you may do it. See, I set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil. (30:11-15)
Moses asserts that we are capable of change. Moses insists that we are capable of opening our hearts, of choosing life and goodness, no matter how far we have strayed from our goal: “Even if you are scattered at the ends of the world, from there YHVH will gather you, and bring you back.” (30:4)
Moses is being the ultimate spiritual teacher here at the end of his teaching. He is telling us that our self-limiting beliefs are keeping us from fully participating in the unfolding of creation. It is not in heaven, or across the sea, it is close to you, on your own lips, and in your own heart, you can do it! I can feel Moses’ sense of urgency as he exhorts us, his people, to enter the Promised Land, the land of human fulfillment. We have a noble task to perform, to expand our sense of the possible. We are to do teshuvah, and align our beliefs about ourselves with our true and magnificent potential. We are to choose life and aliveness so that, as Moses says, we and our descendants may live long upon the good earth that the Creator has granted to us.
This is the message of the High Holy Days.
We aim to give up our acquired habit of powerlessness, the idea that we cannot change, and, trembling at times, crack open the door or the window again to new possibilities, and let the breeze rush into our closed room. We aim to open our hearts, even if that means opening ourselves to uncertainty and even pain. We aim to come home, to ourselves, to our community, to life and aliveness, from wherever we have wandered or felt exiled.
I love that Moses calls heaven and earth as witnesses to this moment, as if to say: we are not separate from creation. The whole world is watching, as it were, waiting for us to fulfill our part. The life energy that animates all of creation also animates us. One day that energy will carry each of us out of our individuality and our essence will rejoin and mingle with the earth and sky. That will be the day of our death. But now Moses asks heaven and earth to witness us, each of us empowered to be a conduit for love, righteousness, courage, and transformation. We matter. The Baal Shem Tov taught that divine sparks are hidden and trapped throughout creation, waiting to be liberated, and that every single person has their own unique set of divine sparks waiting for them to reveal and uplift. No one else can fulfill the noble task of being you. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.”
Yes, it is a challenging time. We can list the reasons to despair. Then again, when have times not been challenging? No matter, says Moses, the potential for change is still in our hands. Moses still has an audience for his words as we enter the New Year : “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!”
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova: may we all be inscribed for the New Year in the Book of Life and Aliveness,
Torah Reading for Week of September 22-28, 2019
“Seek God, Find…”
By Rabbi Haim Ovadia,
On the Ten Days of Penitence, the days between Rosh HaShana and Kippur, God is closer to us. Just as a king or a president might be shut in his residence all year, enabling commoners to see him and talk to him for only a short period, so too God remains aloof and distant all year long, until He grants us a visit during these ten days. This statement always seemed problematic to me because I perceive God as omnipresent and I think that making this analogy borders on anthropomorphism, attributing human traits to God, so I would like to analyze its origins and meaning.
The saying that God is closer to us on these ten days appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 49:2) and is based on a verse in Isaiah (55:6): “Seek God when He is present, call out to Him when He is nearby” –
דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראוהו בהיותו קרוב – אלו עשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים
However, this statement contradicts not only our logic and common sense, but also other biblical sources, for example (Psalms 145:18):
קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת
“God is close to all those who call out to Him, who do it with sincerity”
Or, for example, the following source which uses much stronger words to convey the message that God is not only extremely close to us, but that we cannot escape or break away from this intimacy (Psalms 139:7-14):
אנה אלך מרוחך ואנה מפניך אברח, אם אסק שמים שם אתה ואציע שאול הנך. אשא כנפי שחר אשכון בתחתיות ים, גם שם ידך תנחני…
Where can I run away from Your spirit, escape Your presence? If I scale the sky, there You are and if I descend to the netherworld, I will find You. If I take off on the wings of dawn and dwell in the bottom of the ocean, there too Your hand will guide me…
And as if that contradiction is not enough, I have, as Jews always do, a diametrically opposed question: Isn’t it true that God is never close to us? Didn’t Isaiah say that, in the very same chapter quoted above, only two verses later (55:9)?
כי גבהו שמים מארץ כן גבהו דרכי מדרכיכם ומחשבותי ממחשבותיכם
As the skies are far removed from the earth so are My ways and My thoughts far removed from yours.
And, also in Isaiah (6:3): קדוש, קדוש, קדוש ה’ צבאות – The Lord of Hosts is transcendental, far removed and distinguished.
How do we reconcile the contradicting biblical and rabbinic sources which describe the full gamut of the relationships between us and our Creator, from complete detachment, through narrow windows of encounters to an inextricable intimacy?
In order to solve this mystery I had to start searching who, besides God, would always be with me, no matter where I go or how cleverly I disguise myself, and the answer was very simple: me!
By seeking God we seek ourselves. That is the deepest yet simplest message of Rosh HaShana, Kippur and the whole process of Teshuva – repentance.
You see, we come into this world as pure, innocent creatures, and the actions or reactions of those surrounding us-family, caretakers and friends-influence and shape our personality. If we are lucky enough to have been born in a peaceful country in the developed world, we may believe at a young age that the world is a beautiful place, devoid of evil, except for that bug bite or a lost toy, but as we grow older we intercept signals of cruelty and wickedness such as bullying, foul language, apathy or violence. Some are able to rise above these negative manifestations of the human nature and to craft a wholesome, positive and loving personality, yet others fail to do so, if even in the slightest manner possible.
A research conducted on bullying among school children followed, over several years, kids on a school bus. The researchers focused on a girl who tried to stop bullies from harassing a younger kid, and what they found is quite terrifying in what it reveals about human nature. As years passed by, the girl became less and less involved as she realized that she was not making an impact on the bullies. She gave up and accepted the cruel reality. Her behavior is a paradigm of our response to evil which we think is beyond our control, and too often we hoard our own actions and bad habits under that rubric, arguing that we have tried and failed to change them so we might as well accept and live with them.
Innocence, purity, rejection of evil, and commitment to a life of creativity and activism are all aspects of the Image of God with which we are blessed upon birth, and as we drift away from them, we leave God, and our true self, behind. This is the axis on which the human life oscillates. It starts with the extreme closeness and intimacy with God which young kids possess but only few pure, unadulterated souls manage to maintain as they grow older. On the other extreme, we can find the transcendental and remote God, enclosed in His palatial ivory tower – קדוש קדוש קדוש. But God is only in that state when we don’t seek Him out, at which point He proclaims: “As the skies are far removed from the earth so are My ways and My thoughts far removed from yours.”
Between those two extremes lies the vast expanse of human experience, and as we blaze our path through the vicissitudes of life we find out that God, and our inner pure self, are accessible if we only look for them as the verse quoted above states: “God is truly close to all who seek Him honestly,” and so is our soul. When the psalmist describes in Ps. 139 his attempts to flee God he is actually referring to his efforts to avoid his true call and purpose in life, which culminate in the startling revelation that they are deeply imbedded in his soul and he cannot escape them:
ונפשי יודעת מאד(v. 14), my soul knows very well.
This brings us back to the opening statement by the rabbis, that God is closer to us on the Ten Days of Penitence. This paradoxical, almost heretical statement should be viewed in light of a parallel maxim, found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 5:1):
קראוהו בהיותו קרוב – בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות
God is closer to us in the Synagogue and Bet HaMidrash
The rabbis are saying that God’s proximity to us is a function of the effort we invest in finding Him, because He is always near and all we have to do is look. Praying with devotion and intention helps us find God and find our identity and self, and so does serious learning which goes beyond the abstract intellectual engagement and uses it to create a life imbued with spirituality and adherence to the Torah. In the same manner, God is more accessible to us on the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Kippur because at that time we are affected by the general atmosphere of selichot, prayers and preparations for the holiday. This idea is beautifully expressed in the special prayer preceding the blowing of the Shofar:
יהי רצון מלפניך שתסיר את כל המסכים המבדילים והחוצצים בינינו
Please, Almighty God, remove the curtains which separate us from You
This prayer describes us and God as situated on two sides of a curtain, very close to each other, yet unable to see each other. The Teshuva, repentance, is the ability to take action, search for meaning and self, thus removing the curtain and being in the presence of God.
This presence is referred to in this week’s Parasha by the word נצבים. Moshe requires the people to always be aware that they are facing God, and that awareness should guide their thoughts, words and actions, from the most sublime – ראשיכם, your heads, to the most mundane -מחוטב עציך ועד שואב מימיך , your basic, everyday provisions. It is that presence that Moshe mentions later in the Parasha, as he explains that closeness to God is in our hearts (Deut. 30:11-14), and now that we understand that our quest for the divine is inseparable from the quest for the humane and human which is hiding deep in our soul, covered by layers of disappointment and neglect, we can truly grasp the meaning of these verses:
כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא
לא בשמים היא לאמר מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה
ולא מעבר לים היא לאמר מי יעבר לנו אל עבר הים וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה
כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו
This commandment which I place before you today (to find God – find yourself) is not inaccessible or far removed from you
Ask not “who shall ascend the heavens to bring it to us?” for it is not in heaven
Ask not “who shall cross the ocean and bring it to us?” for it is not across the ocean
Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth and heart, all you have to do is act upon it…
At this point of our discussion I would like to suggest, based on what I have written so far, an alternative reading to a well-known verse (Deut. 4:29):
ובקשתם משם את ה’ אלקיך ומצאת, כי תדרשנו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך
You will seek out God from exile and you will find Him as you search with all your heart and soul
If we move the comma just two words ahead, the verse will be interpreted thus:
ובקשתם משם את ה’ אלקיך ומצאת כי תדרשנו, בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך
You will seek out God from exile and as you search Him, you will find Him in your heart and in your soul!
Let us pray and hope that this year the sound of the shofar, simple, pure, powerful, will carry us to the lost realms of our childhood and help us retrieve a sense of the Image of God and our purpose in life, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child who still believes in the innate good nature of people and in his or her power to help themselves and others.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Choose Life. Whose Life?
From Maggid Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
We are on the cusp of a new year. Though, in fact, every day is an anniversary of something, traditional wisdom of every culture and creed makes a point of setting a few days aside for communal commemoration. And that is where Judaism and its subscribers are currently poised, to note the passing of a year, to contemplate our relationship with The Divine and each other, and to use well our time in the body. Our Torah portion this week, Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) leads off with a radical definition of spirituality:
“You are standing today, all of you, in the face of the Mystery that Empowers you; your leaders, your extended families, your sages, and your guides—every person who wrestles with God—your children, your counterparts, and the stranger that draws close to your community—from the one who hews wood to the one who draws water; to enter into a covenantal relationship with the Spirit that Empowers you, and by whose oath the Spirit, your Spirit, offers you today: That you may be established with The Divine today as a people, and that The Divine is with you as a Force which speaks to you today as it spoke to your ancestors. And this covenant and oath are not only with you, but with anyone who stands here with us and also with anyone that is not here with us today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)
It is a potent invitation to any, and all, who feel called to join in a consensual and dynamic relationship with a new-fangled and radical idea of a transcendent God. If it is hard for us today to embrace this fully conceptual God—a God without form or image, whose name is a mystery, and who “will be what it will be”—it is nothing short of miraculous that the idea gained traction four thousand years ago. Or perhaps it was an easier sell then than now….
Let’s be honest: today’s materialism and physicality are compelling. We experience the world through our bodies—through skin and nerve, brain and bone. We are wired to avoid pain and to privilege pleasure. And we have designed all manner of products to help us with these pursuits—inebriants and analgesics, intoxicants and entertainments of every description. Including religion. We celebrate simple answers as a way to avoid complex questions; we partition ourselves into like-minded tribes to seal out problematic ideas; we purify through segregation to sidestep the messiness of integration. It’s entirely human, and we have been doing it for a long, long time.
But Judaism, in its earliest form, offers us an alternative, if much dodgier, path. It offers us a place, a voice, and a role in navigating the conversation between creation and the Creator by defining it as an ongoing covenant. This week’s text repeatedly says “today”—we stand before You today, we enter this covenant today, even those who are not here today are here today because “today” just keeps happening. Every day marks a new year, a new opportunity to engage, to change, to connect. The covenant between the creation and the creator is not fixed, unchanging, or immutable. It is alive, current, and vital. And, it is as valuable to God as it is to humanity.
May this Shabbat be a time for each of us to consider these question: To what covenant are we committed? Are we holding up our end of the deal? Are we fully present? Do we make space for the Mystery to get a word in edgewise? Are we making time to listen? Do we feel heard? Are we ready to welcome in another day, week, month, year of glorious, radical, full-spectrum life?
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The World is Waiting for You (Nitzavim 5778)
Something remarkable happens in this week’s parsha, almost without our noticing it, that changed the very terms of Jewish existence, and has life-changing implications for all of us. Moses renewed the covenant. This may not sound dramatic, but it was.
Thus far, in the history of humanity as told by the Torah, God had made three covenants. The first, in Genesis 9, was with Noah, and through him, with all humanity. I call this the covenant of human solidarity. According to the sages it contains seven commands, the sheva mitzvoth bnei Noach, most famous of which is the sanctity of human life: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God did God make man” (Gen. 9:6).
The second, in Genesis 17, was with Abraham and his descendants: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty. Walk before Me and have integrity, and I will grant My covenant between Me and you … I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout the generations as an eternal covenant.’” That made Abraham the father of a new faith that would not be the faith of all humanity but would strive to be a blessing to all humanity: “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
The third was with the Israelites in the days of Moses, when the people stood at Mount Sinai, heard the Ten Commandments and accepted the terms of their destiny as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Who, though, initiated these three covenants? God. It was not Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or the Israelites who sought a covenant with God. It was God who sought a covenant with humanity.
There is, though, a discernible change as we trace the trajectory of these three events. From Noah God asked no specific response. There was nothing Noah had to do to show that he accepted the terms of covenant. He now knew that there are seven rules governing acceptable human behaviour, but God asked for no positive covenant-ratifying gesture. Throughout the process Noah was passive.
From Abraham, God did ask for a response – a painful one. “This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen., 17:10-11). The Hebrew word for circumcision is milah, but to this day we call it brit milah or even, simply, brit – which is, of course, the Hebrew word for covenant. God asks, at least of Jewish males, something very demanding: an initiation ceremony.
From the Israelites at Sinai God asked for much more. He asked them in effect to recognise Him as their sole sovereign and legislator. The Sinai covenant came not with seven commands as for Noah, or an eighth as for Abraham, but with 613 of them. The Israelites were to incorporate God-consciousness into every aspect of their lives.
So, as the covenants proceed, God asks more and more of His partners, or to put it slightly differently, He entrusts them with ever greater responsibilities.
Something else happened at Sinai that had not happened before. God tells Moses to announce the nature of the covenant before making it, to see whether the people agree. They do so no less than three times: “Then the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’” (Ex. 19:7). “The people all responded with a single voice, ‘We will do everything the Lord has spoken’” (Ex. 24:3). “The people said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do and heed’” (Ex. 24:7).
This is the first time in history that we encounter the phenomenon enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, namely “the consent of the governed.” God only spoke the Ten Commandments after the people had signalled that they had given their consent to be bound by His word. God does not impose His rule by force. At Sinai, covenant-making became mutual. Both sides had to agree.
So the human role in covenant-making grows greater over time. But Nitzavim takes this one stage further. Moses, seemingly of his own initiative, renewed the covenant:
All of you are standing today before the Lord your God—your leaders, your tribes, your elders and officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the strangers in your camp, from woodcutter to water-drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God and its oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today, to establish you today as His people, that He may be your God, as He promised you and swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deut. 29:9-12)
This was the first time that the covenant was renewed, but not the last. It happened again at the end of Joshua’s life (Josh. 24), and later in the days of Jehoiada (2 Kings 11:17), Hezekiah (2 Chron. 29) and Josiah (1 Kings 23: 1-3; 2 Chron. 34: 29-33). After the Babylonian exile, Ezra and Nehemiah convened a national gathering to renew the covenant (Nehemiah 8). But it happened first in today’s parsha.
It happened because Moses knew it had to happen. The terms of Jewish history were about to shift from Divine initiative to human initiative. This is what Moses was preparing the Israelites for in the last month of his life. It is as if he had said: Until now God has led – in a pillar of cloud and fire – and you have followed. Now God is handing over the reins of history to you. From here on, you must lead. If your hearts are with Him, He will be with you. But you are now no longer children; you are adults. An adult still has parents, as a child does, but his or her relationship with them is different. An adult knows the burden of responsibility. An adult does not wait for someone else to take the first step.
That is the epic significance of Nitzavim, the parsha that stands almost at the end of the Torah and that we read almost at the end of the year. It is about getting ready for a new beginning: in which we act for God instead of waiting for God to act for us.
Translate this into human terms and you will see how life-changing it can be. Many years ago, at the beginning of my rabbinical career, I kept waiting for a word of encouragement from a senior rabbinical figure. I was working hard, trying innovative approaches, seeking new ways of getting people engaged in Jewish life and learning. You need support at such moments because taking risks and suffering the inevitable criticism is emotionally draining. The encouragement never came. The silence hurt. It ate, like acid, into my heart.
Then in a lightning-flash of insight, I thought: what if I turn the entire scenario around. What if, instead of waiting for Rabbi X to encourage me, I encouraged him? What if I did for him what I was hoping he would do for me? That was a life-changing moment. It gave me a strength I never had before.
I began to formulate it as an ethic. Don’t wait to be praised: praise others. Don’t wait to be respected: respect others. Don’t stand on the sidelines, criticising others. Do something yourself to make things better. Don’t wait for the world to change: begin the process yourself, and then win others to the cause. There is a statement attributed to Gandhi (actually he never said it, but in a parallel universe he might have done): ‘Be the change you seek in the world.’ Take the initiative.
That was what Moses was doing in the last month of his life, in that long series of public addresses that make up the book of Devarim, culminating in the great covenant-renewal ceremony in today’s parsha. Devarim marks the end of the childhood of the Jewish people. From there on, Judaism became God’s call to human responsibility. For us, faith is not waiting for God. Faith is the realisation that God is waiting for us.
Hence the life-changing idea: Whenever you find yourself distressed because someone hasn’t done for you what you think they should have done, turn the thought around, and then do it for them.
Don’t wait for the world to get better. Take the initiative yourself. The world is waiting for you.
 Of course, the Babylonian Talmud argues that at Sinai God did impose the covenant by force, namely by “suspending the mountain” over the people’s heads. But the Talmud then immediately notes that “this constitutes a fundamental challenge to the authority of the Torah” and concludes that the people finally accepted the Torah voluntarily “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Shabbat 88a). The only question, therefore, is: when was there free consent?
 See Brian Morton, ‘Falser words were never spoken,’ New York Times, 29 August 2011. The closest he came was, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
From Rabbi David Kasher
CHOP WOOD, DRAW WATER – Parshat Nitzavim
“You stand here, today, all of you, before the Lord your God.”
Thus Moses begins the last section of the great oratory that makes up the Book of Deuteronomy. He has recounted the history of their long journey. He has delivered heaps of new laws, meant to help them establish a working society in this new land across the Jordan. And now he pauses, looks out over the crowd, scanning faces, and he says, “Here you are. All of you.”
So who is this “all of you”? Who is standing there, ready to become the Nation of Israel? Who is in our community?
Moses begins to list distinct groups of people. First the officials: the heads of the tribes; the elders; the legal authorities.
Then the members of the family unit: the men, women and children.
And finally, “the stranger within your camp” – for Deuteronomy has made constant mention of our obligations toward the stranger – reminding us, again and again, “for you were strangers in Egypt.”
But then Moses calls out two further categories of people, seemingly at random:
From your wood-chopper to your water-drawer. (Deut. 29:10)
מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ
What a strange phrase! Why single out these particular laborers? And what is it about these groups that has not been covered by any of the categories we have heard so far?
Rashi has an answer to these questions, and it’s a pretty clever one:
From your wood-choppers to your water-drawers – This teaches us that in the days of Moses, some Canaanites came to convert, just as the Gibonites came in the days of Joshua. For this is what is said about the Gibonites: “And they also acted cunningly…” (Josh. 9:4) So Moses made them wood-choppers and water-drawers.
מחטב עציך: מלמד שבאו כנענים להתגייר בימי משה, כדרך שבאו גבעונים בימי יהושע. וזהו האמור בגבעונים (יהושע ט, ד) ויעשו גם המה בערמה, ונתנם משה חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים
Rashi has found another place, later in the Bible, when wood-choppers and water-drawers come up again. In the Book of Joshua, we read that the Gibonites claimed to be a distant people who had journeyed to join the Israelites out of admiration. Israel agreed to accept the Gibonites, but later discover they had been lying, and that they were actually a local enemy tribe, just seeking security from the Israeli attack. Joshua could not kick them out – he’d already made a promise to them – but he did condemn them to this curse:
Your descendants shall always be servants – wood-choppers and water-drawers – for the House of my God. (Josh. 9:23)
וְלֹא-יִכָּרֵת מִכֶּם עֶבֶד, וְחֹטְבֵי עֵצִים וְשֹׁאֲבֵי-מַיִם–לְבֵית אֱלֹקי
There are those specific groups again: wood-choppers and water-drawers. And here they are meant to represent positions of servitude, assigned as a punishment for deception. So Rashi reads this context backwards, into Deuteronomy, and assumes our wood-chopper and water-drawer were also converts from the local population.
But there are a number of problems with this explanation. First, it’s disgraceful to think that Moses would have given new converts the most demeaning jobs in the community, and then called that out in front of everyone. (In the Book of Joshua, remember, the Gibonites had lied their way in; here, the Canaanites seem to be sincere converts.) Secondly, Moses’ phrasing, “from your wood-chopper to your water-drawer,” suggests that there is a distinction between the two groups – in fact, that they represent a spectrum, from one end to the other – whereas the meaning of these tasks drawn from the Book of Joshua is simply that there are both lowly positions, similar to one another.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult from a narrative perspective, this interpretation forces us to see the earlier Book of Deuteronomy referencing the later Book of Joshua. It is as if what Moses is saying made no sense on its own, at the time, and only later came to have meaning, once the story of the Gibonites was explained by Joshua, in the future. That is an awkward way to think of these opening phrases in Moses’ great speech. Would the people there have even understood what Moses was talking about?
What would be ideal, instead – from a parshanut perspective – is if there were prior instances in the Torah of these categories, and Moses was hearkening backwards to reference an earlier context. And, even better – while we’re wishing – would be if each of these two roles were mentioned only one other time previously, so that we knew exactly where to draw a connection. And, best of all would be if the two earlier mentions of wood-choppers and water-drawers were very different, so that we could understand some distinction between the two.
Well, good news, parsha nuts. It turns out that all that is exactly what we find when we look backwards in the Torah. There is exactly one other mention of a wood-chopper, and one other mention of a water-drawer. And they are in very different contexts, indeed.
Our wood-chopper can be found just a few chapters back in Deuteronomy, in Parshat Shoftim, in the description of a case of involuntary manslaughter:
When someone goes with his fellow into the woods to chop wood; as his arm swings the ax to cut down a tree, the ax-head flies off the handle and strikes the other so that he dies. Then the first one must flee into one of the cities [of refuge] and live there. (Deut. 19:5)
וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ בַיַּעַר, לַחְטֹב עֵצִים, וְנִדְּחָה יָדוֹ בַגַּרְזֶן לִכְרֹת הָעֵץ, וְנָשַׁל הַבַּרְזֶל מִן-הָעֵץ וּמָצָא אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וָמֵת: הוּא, יָנוּס אֶל-אַחַת הֶעָרִים-הָאֵלֶּה–וָחָי
The cities of refuge, mentioned several times in the Torah, are designated centers of asylum for those who have committed a terrible act, but accidentally, with no malintent. They are being pursued by the outraged family of the deceased, but can find safety in these cities of refuge. If they leave this sanctuary, however, they no longer have the protection of the law. And the classic case of this kind of exile from the community is the anonymous wood-chopper.
Our water-drawer, meanwhile, is a far more famous character. There are several stories, in the Torah, of women drawing water from a well. But only one of them uses the specific language of ‘drawing’ – shoeiva (שואבה). It is the tale of Abraham’s servant, traveling in search of a wife for Isaac. Here he tells what happened:
I came today to the spring, and I said, O Lord, God of my master Abraham, if You would please grant success to me on my way. As I stand by the spring of water, let the young woman who comes out to draw and to whom I say, “Please, let me drink a little water from your jar,’ and who answers, ‘You may drink, and I will also draw for your camels’ – let her be the wife whom the Lord has decreed for my master’s son.” I had scarcely finished praying in my heart, when Rebecca came out with her jar on her shoulder, and went down to the spring, and drew… (Gen. 24:42-45)
וָאָבֹא הַיּוֹם, אֶל-הָעָיִן; וָאֹמַר, ה אֱלֹקי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, אִם-יֶשְׁךָ-נָּא מַצְלִיחַ דַּרְכִּי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הֹלֵךְ עָלֶיהָ. מג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב, עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם; וְהָיָה הָעַלְמָה, הַיֹּצֵאת לִשְׁאֹב, וְאָמַרְתִּי אֵלֶיהָ, הַשְׁקִינִי-נָא מְעַט-מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ. וְאָמְרָה אֵלַי גַּם-אַתָּה שְׁתֵה, וְגַם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב–הִוא הָאִשָּׁה, אֲשֶׁר-הֹכִיחַ ה לְבֶן-אֲדֹנִי. אֲנִי טֶרֶם אֲכַלֶּה לְדַבֵּר אֶל-לִבִּי, וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת וְכַדָּהּ עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ, וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה, וַתִּשְׁאָב
Rebecca. The second of the great Matriarchs. She is the first water-drawer. And it was through her water-drawing that she showed herself to be a righteous woman, worthy of God’s covenant. She was then a foreign woman, but because of her kindness to travelers, and even their beasts of burden, she would become the mother of Israel.
A water-drawer and a wood-chopper. Rebecca and the refugee. Here we have two members of the people of Israel – one nearly a prisoner, and the other nearly royalty. And perhaps this disparity is part of what Moses is referencing: from your wood-chopper to your water-drawer – from the bottom to the top, the most wretched to the most exalted.
But there are also things that these two people have in common. Both are leaving their homes – one to enter into our community, and the other to flee from it. And both are recognized to be people of pure intention. The wood-chopper is guilty of manslaughter, but we know he meant no harm. So he will have to temporarily leave the place he is from, but he will not be cut off from the people of Israel. The water-drawer is at first a suspicious character, an outsider, but she soon reveals an inner essence so admirable that we beg her to leave the place she is from and come join our people.
These, then, are two perfect examples for Moses to use to define the boundaries of the congregation that stands before him. Who is in our community? Who will be counted among the people of Israel? The case of the wood-chopper teaches us that no one among us can ever be cut off, no matter what he does, so long as we know him to be pure of heart. The case of the water-drawer teaches us to seek out the righteous among the nations, and ask them to join us.
Can a Jew ever be cut off from his people? When should an outsider be welcomed into the congregation? On one side of the community we have the question of who we would drive out, and on the other side the question of who we will let in? And the answer to both of those questions, Moses suggests, is determined not by status, but by character.
For we are to be a people of righteousness, who love justice and revere compassion. Our mother is a foreigner, and our brother is a refugee. They stand with us here, today, and we stand with them.
THE ROOT OF EVIL
What the heck is wormwood?
Or, more to the point, what is it doing in my Torah?
We’ve come to the end of a long series of curses, warning the Children of Israel that if they fail to keep the commandments once they are in the land of Canaan, they are doomed in all kinds of terrible ways. And now that they understand what they’re getting into, God is ready to pronounce a covenant with the people – all the people, even “those who are not with us this day.”
But there is one exception:
Perchance there is, among you, a man or a woman, or a family or a tribe, whose heart is turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the other gods of the nations – perchance there is among you a root sprouting gall and wormwood. (Deuteronomy 29:18)
Gall and wormwood?! We know that this is a person who has sinned somehow, forsaking God. But what is this sprouting root metaphor doing here?
The Hebrew words used here are rosh and laanah, and scholars have tried to identify them with various plants, but many translations have landed on gall poppy – a type of opium – and wormwood herb – which produces a bitter, dark green oil. If that is so, then the two plants represent intoxication and bitterness.
The Torah provides its own explanation of the metaphor, in the next verse, when it says:
When such a one hears these words of this curse, he blesses himself in his heart, saying “I will have peace, for I will follow my own willful heart.” (v. 19)
So this growth of bitterness and confusion is taking place in the heart. We have identified the location of the “root.” But that doesn’t help us much. For what does it mean that he then “blesses himself” in his heart, and “follows” his heart – and when he does, what peace does he seek?
A remarkable explanation is provided by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, one of the great 19th-century German commentators, in his HaKetav VehaKabbalah. Mecklenberg takes us deep into the psychology of such a person, and reveals a painful inner struggle underlying all the bitterness:
This is a man at whose core lies a deterioration of the fundamentals and features which are the very essence of our Torah. When he hears all of this – all the particulars of the covenant, and the specifics of the commandments, covering various topics – some of which have their reasons explained, and some that the intellect cannot grasp…ָ then he prays to himself, saying, “Look, the truth is, there are many commandments that we are baffled by. My heart struggles to understand them, and I find myself in constant battle and conflict. Sometimes I am able to bring myself to observe them, and sometimes I cannot. For they are things that reason does not seem to require, and I am unable to grasp their purpose. Therefore, I will only follow those which make sense to my heart and to my intellect, and what my conscience tells me is truly reasonable. And thus, I will have peace, free from internal conflict. For when I do only those things that seem reasonable and true, my soul will be content, and I will delight in them.”
Mecklenberg begins by condemning this corrupted man, who rejects “the very essence of our Torah.” But he ends up humanizing him, by giving us such a sensitive and nuanced treatment of the kind of turmoil that prompts this kind of rejection, that it is hard not to relate.
His heart is struggling to understand the reasons for certain commandments. There are those commandments, after all, that we all acknowledge are mysterious, incomprehensible. Some of us simply accept them. But he is locked in a constant battle. He cannot ignore the dissonance he feels between his reason and his faith. All he wants is to feel an inner calm in his religious life. He wants his faith to make sense.
He does not propose to abandon the commandments entirely. Only to leave aside those practices which strain reason and credulity. He is seeking a religious life that he can truly embrace, with his whole heart. He wants nothing more than to be able to take delight in his service of God. Is that so wrong?
So who is this suffering soul? Who is cursed with this heart full of gall and wormwood?
Here in our parsha, he remains anonymous. But there is one figure, later in the Bible, who will return to this image again and again: the prophet Jeremiah.
In the Book of Jeremiah, we read the following passage, filled with language that seems directly borrowed from our parsha:
The Lord said: because they forsook the Torah that I had set before them, and did not heed My voice and did not follow it, but instead followed their own own willful heart, and followed the foreign gods as their fathers taught them. Therefore, says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink gall. (Jer. 9:12-14)
And again, in the Book of Lamentations – also traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah – we read the following, more personalized passage:
Remember my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. (Lam. 3:19)
So Jeremiah has ingested these bitter herbs on our behalf, has drunk from these dizzying opiates. They rot miserably in his gut. And if Rabbi Mecklenberg is right about wormwood and gall, then what Jeremiah is aching from is an inability to understand the Torah, a confusion over the purpose of the commandments. He wants to follow them, to return to the Lord, but he cannot fully reconcile the conflict in his mind, and in his heart.
Far be it from me to suggest that Jeremiah himself was lacking in faith. But of course, Jeremiah means to speak for us all. We forsook the Torah. We followed our own willful hearts. We ate wormwood and drank gall. We were bitter and confused. And we were miserable.
And when Jeremiah switches to the language of the first person, it is because he is encouraging us to do the same – to say, “I am the one who the Torah speaks about. I am the one whose heart sprouted wormwood and gall. I am the one who has abandoned my faith.” Indeed, the chapter of Lamentations we quoted above begins famously with these words:
I am the man who has seen affliction… (Jer. 3:1)
Perchance, the Torah asks us delicately, there is, among you, a man or a woman, a family or a tribe, whose heart is turning away from the Lord? We look around. Who is it? Where is the root of this evil? Who is poisoning our waters?
I am the man. I am the woman. We are the family. We are the tribe.
These things grow inside every one of us.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Returning in love: short thoughts on Nitzavim-Vayeilech
If you only take one thing away from this morning’s Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.
This week’s Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those “good outcomes” and “bad outcomes.” We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn’t wish for, even when we’ve chosen as wisely as we could.
Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn’t mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we’ll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.
And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.
We’ve all had the experience of hurting someone’s feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn’t like that. When we make teshuvah, says this Torah portion, God responds to us in love.
If you’ve paid attention to the Torah readings we’ve been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It’s true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.
Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.
Here is one thing I know for sure: ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. “Don’t worry,” the Torah seems to be telling us. “It’s going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what.”
On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:
11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn’t require us to be someone that we’re not. It doesn’t demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.
Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.
From the Maqam Project
From Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Nitsavim-Vayelekh / Shabbat Selichot
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
Masphiah Ruchanit and
Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies
How Are You Planning on Showing Up?
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
“You stand this day all of you, (KOL), before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Yisra’el” (Dvarim/Deuteronomy 29,9).
My irreverent mind engages my reverent mind when asking “Every word in the Torah has meaning so what does “all of you” ( KOL) mean?” How else does one show up? In pieces? At different times of the day?
I was reminded of a moment in my far past. It was the mid-eighties of the previous century and I was an undergraduate student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Working as the Publications Coordinator and Librarian at “The Maurice Falk Institute for Economic Research in Israel” I was summoned to the office of the president of the university, Prof. Don Patinkin. I lost my breath for a moment in panic. It was Friday, and no one comes to the university on Friday unless you had to. It was more of a laid back and casual dress day. That Friday I was very colorful: Long flowing light purple dress, black stockings, and white knit shoes. Large purple, black and white hand crafted earrings, many bracelets and much makeup to match. If that wasn’t enough I had a black-purple-white bandana on my head. Not exactly the way to go to see the president of a University. But there was no time to run to the dorms to change, so I retied my bandana to make me look more “together” and prayed for the best.
Needless to say Prof. Patinkin was quite shocked by the young woman who walked into his office. Considering I was working on preparing one of his articles for publication, my appearance didn’t exude the professionalism of an employee of an economics research institute. He glanced from head to toe, in what seemed like dismay and stutteringly questioned, “YYYYou are Mimi?” I smiled and innocently said, “Yes!” Again, his eyes started at my toes and made their way up to my bandana, still stuttering, “YYYYou are Mimi???” Again, in my innocence and attempt to keep my composition as his horror didn’t relent, “Yes, I’m Mimi, all of me… (KOO’LI)… To which he responded, “There is a lot of all of you. Yesh Harbeh min haKOL hazeh.”
I will leave the happy end of the story for another time, though I will share with you that I never stopped hearing him say that sentence: “There is a lot of all of you. Yesh Harbeh min haKOL hazeh.” Time and again I look at myself and hear him speaking to me, and at times I hear him speaking to others; telling us that there are a lot of us. It is in such a manner I hear Prof. Patinkin today reading our opening verse of the Torah portion saying to the person standing in front of God, “Aside from your role as a captain, an elder, a water carrier (as will appear a few verses later), aside from what you do, who you are is a lot!
It is with this understanding that I ask myself in these ten or so days leading up to Rosh Hashana and then Yom Kippur in two Shabbats from now, “How will I stand in the presence of God? What will I bring with me when standing in the presence of the One-and-Only?”
While Maimonides opens his corpus of law, the Mishneh Torah, with the “Foundations of the Torah” (“Yesodei Ha’Torah”) teaching us that there are two positive imperatives, to fear God and love God (perhaps “awe” would be a more appropriate translation of the word “yir’ah”), it is only in the Laws of Repentance that he actually explains what it means to love God. I ask, “Does this perhaps mean that in order to believe in God one needs to be in a state of Yir’ah, but in order to return to God, in order to stand in the presence of God, one must do that with love?”What would it look like to stand in God’s light with love in my heart? What would it look like to be open to the possibility of experiencing God’s love of me?
Father Henry Nouwen, one of my beloved teachers (1932-1996) refers to this question in multiple opportunities in his book “The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life.” Two of these moments I would like to share with you. When describing a listening heart he shares with us:
“The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friend and enemies, in short all that makes us who we are. With all this we have to listen to God’s voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being. This is hard since we are so fearful and insecure that we keep hiding ourselves from God.”
“We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow; and not just our prayer but also our self-knowledge, because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.” (pp.83-84; my emphasis)
When addressing God’s love to us he posits:
“To return to God means to return to God with all that I am and all that I have. I cannot return to God with just half of my being. I suddenly felt a certain resistance to being embraced so fully and totally. I experienced not only a desire to be embraced, but also a fear of losing my independence. I realized that God’s love is a jealous love. God wants not just a part of me, but all of me. Only when I surrender myself completely to God’s parental love can I expect to be free from endless distractions, ready to hear the voice of love and able to recognize my own unique call.”
“It is going to be a very long road. Every time I pray, I feel the struggle. It is the struggle of letting God be the God of my whole being. It is the struggle to trust that true freedom lies hidden in total surrender to God’s love.” (pp.73-74; my emphasis)
It is for these thoughts and reasons I return to ask myself, to ask you, praying we will ask each other: “How are you going to enter this Shabbat, how are you going to show up on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?” “Are you going to leave parts of yourself at home, or are you going to allow yourself the gift of the moment to stand / to sit / to cry / to meditate in the presence of The One-That-Loves-All-of-Who-We-Are. In what form is the opening verse of our Torah portion a personal invitation: “You stand this day all of you, (KOL), before the Lord your God.”
May we be blessed with the faith, the courage, the trust and the love to do so. May we grant each other the strength and conviction to do so in moments of faltering. May we all be signed in the book of Loving-Life and good health.
Reb Miles Krassen
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Torah of the Mouth (2012/5772)
“It is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to enact it.” – Devarim 30:14
How do you enact Torah with your mouth? One way is through the practice of shmirat halashon: Observing your speech. Guarding it. Holding it precious.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, defines lashon hara, evil talk, as sharing information that is derogatory or potentially harmful to another individual. The definition is not simple. Lashon hara is either derogatory or potentially harmful. Thus, a derogatory statement is lashon hara even if it isn’t harmful. A positive statement can also be lashon hara if it is potentially harmful.
The definition calls us to awareness. Before each of us speaks, we should think. Think about the person you are addressing. How will they respond? Think about the person you are discussing. What is their situation? Think about yourself. What is your motive? Is it beneficial? How else might you achieve it?
The Chofetz Chaim writes: “By performing a given mitzvah through a given organ, a spiritual light comes to rest upon the corresponding component of the soul; it is from this light that this component draws eternal vitality.”
The heart is a part of our soul that corresponds to the speaking mouth. We express our emotions through speech. We speak badly when our emotions overcome our speech. When we must express negative emotions, we feel badly if we do it less than thoughtfully and productively.
Speech is a tangible manifestation of our thoughts and feelings. If we speak more kindly, we may learn to think more kindly. If we express ourselves with more clarity, we may learn to feel with more clarity. A worthy set of goals for the New Year.
From Melissa Carpenter
Nitzavim: Still Standing
Who is Moses addressing in his book-length farewell speech on the bank of the Jordan? In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, Moses begins to wrap up his speech to the people he has led for 40 years. He begins by listing everyone included in a renewed covenant with God that takes effect when the group crosses the Jordan into the “promised land” of Canaan.
You are the ones who are nitzavim today, all of you, before God, your god: your heads, your tribes(men), your elders, and your officials, every man of Israel; your young children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camps, from the gatherer of your wood to the drawer of your water; [in order] to cross into the covenant of God, your god, with its alah that God, your god, is cutting [i.e. signing] with you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:9-11)
nitzavim = taking a stand, stepping up, stationing yourselves, standing firm
alah = an obligation which puts a curse on anyone who fails to meet it
Moses includes not only all the men of Israel, regardless of rank, but also all the women and children. Moreover, he includes the strangers in their midst: those who are not of the same blood, but who have voluntarily chosen to join the Israelites–in other words, the converts. Moses even includes converts of low status, those who gather wood and draw water for the Israelites.
This is not the same group of Israelites and converts who followed Moses out of Egypt. Most of the adults in the original group have died during the 40 years in the wilderness. Some died when God punished various revolts with plague, fire, earthquake, and snakebite. Others died of old age during the 38 years that passed between the group’s arrival at the southern border of Canaan in the desert, and their arrival at the more northern border of Canaan at the Jordan. At the southern border, most of the people became afraid and refused to cross into Canaan. God’s punishment was to make them wait until all but two men from that generation had died before they could attempt a second crossing into Canaan—hence the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Now the survivors are standing at the Jordan River, ready to cross. Most of them were children, or not born yet, when the original group embraced the original covenant with God at Mount Sinai. So Moses says God is cutting a covenant with this new group. But it is a covenant with a penalty clause. If they do not live up to their side of the covenant, following God’s laws and refraining from worshiping any other god, then the long list of curses in last week’s Torah portion would come to pass. (For example, parents would eat their own children as they are starved by both crop failure and beseiging enemies.)
When God gave a covenant to the earlier generation at Mount Sinai, they replied, “We will do and we will hear!” But in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses announces the covenant to the later generation, they say nothing. No response is recorded in the Torah.
So why does Moses describe this passive group as nitzavim? Are they really taking a stand in favor of God? Are they standing firm, as the word nitzavim implies? Or are they merely standing there waiting for Moses to finish his speech so that they can do the next thing they are required to do? Are they following orders because they want to serve God, or because they have grown up with the Israelite system, and continuing to serve the god of Israel is better than the alternative?
Are they standing firm, or are they merely still standing?
But wait, there’s more. Moses expands the group included in the covenant, quoting God:
And I, Myself, am cutting this covenant and this alah [penalty clause] not with you alone, but with whoever is here standing with us today before God, our god, and whoever is not here with us today. (Deuteronomy 29:14)
Who are these additional people who are not standing in front of God (and Moses) that day? According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), they are the souls of all future Jews, yet to be born. Traditional commentary agrees, and includes both everyone who ever had or will convert to Judiasm as well as everyone who was or will be born to a Jewish mother. Converts enter the covenant with God at the time of their conversion, but people who are born Jewish have no choice; they are simply included. Different commentators have held different opinions about whether individuals who were born Jewish can opt out of the covenant or not.
What I wonder is whether traditional Jewish commentary is too narrow in its definition of who is included in “whoever is not here with us today”. What if the covenant applies to every human being on earth, forever? That would, after all, be the plain sense of the words.
Does that mean we should all be Jews? No. I think it means we should all avoid treating ourselves as if we were gods. We should all avoid the curse of devouring our children, the curse of (metaphorically) devouring any other human being, the curse of devouring our own planet.
We should remember that we are small parts of the whole creation. And we should remember that all human beings are in a covenant together.
We are standing today
All of us
The big shots
Wives and sweethearts
And the stranger
That is within all of us
Before Hashem The Name
From the hewers of wood
To the carriers of water
All of us
Every busy one of us
To cut a deal with You
So that You will
Remember the deal
You cut with our ancestors
Eager covenant cutters.
But not for us alone
Do You keep this agreement
Not for us who are here
But for those of us
Who are not here
For this deal that I set before you this day
You know which one I mean
It is not too far from you
That you should say
Who shall go for us
Nor is it too hard for you
That you should say
Who will do this for us
It is not in heaven
And it is not hidden
And it is not distant
But right here
Under your nose
It is in your mouth
And in your heart
It is sitting next to you on the bench
Waiting with you for the bus
It is standing on the corner
In front of Starbuck’s
Waiting for the light to change
That you should do it.
I have placed before you
The life and the good
And the death and the evil
So love Hashem
Walk like God
Do the right things
The simple things and the complex things
Figure out what you can for yourself
And be wise together
Then you will multiply
And God will grow you
And bless you.
But if you don’t listen
And fly away
I tell you
I surely tell you
I know that you will be lost
And your days will not be lengthened
On the land.
So I call heaven and earth together
To witness for you and against you
I have placed life and death before you
Blessing and curse.
Glue yourself to God
For God is your life
And the length of your days.
God promised your ancestors
God promised them
Reb Sholom Brodt
“ATEM NITZAVIM HAYOM” YOU ARE ‘STANDING’ ‘TODAY’
“You are all standing today before Hashem your G-d, all of you, your leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Yisrael; your children, your wives and the convert that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. To pass you through [to enter] in the covenant of Hashem your G-d, and His oath, that Hashem your G-d is cutting with you today. In order that He establish you today unto Himself as a nation, and He will be unto you a G-d, as He has spoken to you and as He has sworn to your ancestors, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov. [Devarim 29:9-12]
“All of you”, that is everyone of us, from our greatest leaders to our most simple, holy simple heart warming wood choppers and thirst quenching water carriers. All of us are standing together, not only those of you who are present here today, but also whoever is not here yet today.
“Today”, our holy Rebbes teach us, refers to Rosh Hashanah, the “day of judgment.” All of us, whatever state we are in, in a state of “mochin de’gadlus” higher consciousness or in a state of “mochin de’katnus” small mindedness; in our creative states and in our simple labour states, as leaders, as followers, as woodchoppers, as water carriers, all of us are standing before G-d, TODAY!
Oh G-d, please embrace us, with a loving embrace, a healing embrace to remember that day when we were standing there all together; to remind us that TODAY too we are standing before You. Give us the strength to embrace You and Your love and truth. Give us please, the strength to return to You, to reaffirm our commitment to You, to our brothers and sisters, to our parents to our holy children and to Your Torah, in joy with strength and love. Please bless us with the quick arrival of Mashiach, in our days, and the rebuilding of Your Holy Temple. Amen Kein Yehi Ratzon.
The Secret for Standing Together as One! – in one word…..
Anavah- to be truly humble before every one!!!!
You stand upright this day, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, and all the men of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)
The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells the story of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who fell ill and was at the brink of death when his father’s prayers brought him back to life. When he came to, his father asked him: “My son, what did you see (in heaven)?” Rav Yosef replied: “I saw an upside-down world. Those who are on top here, are on the bottom there; and those who are here regarded as lowly, are exalted in heaven.”
That the leader or the sage is superior to the wood-hewer or the water carrier is only from our earth-bound perspective, which sees a “hierarchy” of roles. But when “you all stand before G-d” there is no higher and lower — what seems “low” here is no less lofty and significant in G-d’s eyes.
Like the various organs and limbs of a body, each of which complements, serves and fulfills all the others, so, too, the Jewish people: the simple “wood-hewer” or “water-carrier” contributes something to each and every one of his fellow Jews, including the most exalted “head.”
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
Our sages have said: “All Israel are guarantors for each other” (Talmud, Shevuot 39a). But a person cannot serve as a guarantor unless he is more resourceful in some way than the one he is guaranteeing. For example, a poor man obviously would not be accepted as a guarantor for a rich man’s loan. So if the Talmud says that all Jews serve as guarantors to each other, this means that in every Jew there is a quality in which he or she is superior to all others.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
You stand upright this day, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d (29:9)
“This day” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we all stand in judgment before G-d (the Torah reading of Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah).
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
And Moses went… to all of Israel (31:1)
But the Torah doesn’t tell us where Moses went on this last day of his earthly life. The Chassidic masters say: Moses entered into the core of every Jew of every generation, so that every Jewish soul possesess a spark of the soul of Moses.
(Maayanah Shel Torah)
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Standing Firm. Moving Forward
This week is a double portion, Netzavim/standing and VaYelech/going.
The first portion begins with the words “You are all standing this day before Hashem…the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel.” (29:9)
The second portion begins with the words “And Moshe went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel.” (31:1)
We begin with ‘standing’, and then continue with ‘moving.’
When we stand completely firm, unwavering and balanced, we are capable of forward movement that is steady and directed.
Before we enter the month of Tishrei, we need to find the balance and sureness of our stance, the combination of gathering our past and asessing our future goals, enables us to find solid grounding in the present. It is from this place of stillness that we can then find our way to go forward into the new year.
We stand tall and sure, feet solidly planted on the ground and head reaching towards the heavens. We find our place of stillness, the knowledge that we stand always before Hashem, in a place of complete unity. Then we make our forward movement from that place of balance, and our movement is guided and directed from this place of pure stillness.
The Energy of the Week:
Standing Firm. Moving Forward.
This week’s energy is the power of the standing posture, and its ability to move us forward in the right direction.
Check your spiritual and physical posture to ensure that you are solidly grounded, and use that solid grounding to propel you forward in your growth and movement this week.
Before making a decision or going forward in any direction this week, check your standing posture, understand that the forward movement must come from a place of unity and balance.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
SECRETS (NITZAVIM) 2008
Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deut. 29:28)
God inhabits our secrets,
nestles in our fantasies
like a cat curling up for a nap
in a pile of warm laundry
God hides in plain sight
veiled by the textures of creation
as Elul dwindles to a fingernail-paring
God sorts the stories we don’t tell
some God keeps in confidence
some ask us shyly to be spoken aloud
on Yom Kippur
when we knock on our hearts
we don’t have to be afraid
to throw our screen doors wide
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
DEUTERONOMY 29:9 – 30:82
The Israelites stand before God and receive the covenant. They are encouraged to step up to the blessings and challenges of Torah.
NITZAVIM TELLS US that we stand before God in our wholeness. This completeness infuses us with the fullness of vitality, presence and beauty that is necessary in order to receive and give the blessings of covenantal love.
THE PROPHET EZEKIEL gives us a glimpse of the passionate partnership suggested in the meaning of covenant. We stand before God in our most fragile and raw vulnerability. From there we are lifted up into sovereignty:
“I let you grow like the plants of the field; and you continued
to grow up until you attained to womanhood, until your breasts
became firm and your hair sprouted. You were still naked and
bare when I passed by you and saw that your time for love had
arrived. So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness,
and I entered into a covenant with you by oath – declares the Lord
God; thus you became Mine. I bathed you in water, and washed
the blood off you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with
embroidered garments… dressed you in silks. I decked you out
in finery… I put a ring in your nose and earrings in your ears,
and a splendid crown on your head. Your food was choice flour,
honey and oil. You grew more and more beautiful, and became
fit for royalty.”1
When we stand in our wholeness (including all our disparate parts – from the elder and honored aspect of self, to the most lowly woodcutter/ water-carrier aspect2) we are privileged to pass into a covenant with God. To stand and receive this honor is to be given a splendid crown, be robed in finest silk, enjoy a royal repast and grow into our beauty. Covenantal love washes us clean and anoints us with the oil of our sovereignty. The path of covenantal love requires the maturing of our humanity as we become “fit for royalty,” as we grow into our essential Divinity. Through covenantal love we are lifted up, ennobled.
THE PROPHET HOSEA describes that day of covenant, the day when we stand before God in our wholeness. The covenant that we establish with God blesses the whole world, opens our hearts to all creatures, and ends violence.
“In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts
of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the
ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land.
Thus I will let them lie down in safety.”3
This “safety” that Hosea describes comes in remembering that we are intimately related to all beings. We are part of them and they are part of us. We can lay down our weapons, put away our armor and clothe ourselves in the silks and embroidered garments of covenantal love.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AS WE STAND BEFORE GOD we are challenged to reclaim all the shards of self that have been broken off in trauma, all the lost pieces of self that we project on the “other,” all the parts of self that lie hidden behind walls of shame or pride. As we stand up in our integrity, the blessings of covenantal love begin to shine through our lives.
These blessings of covenantal love come as we stand before God and rise to the challenge that has been put before us. We grow into spiritual adults by standing up to face this challenge and not shying away from it. “I’ve put Life and Death in front of you, Blessing and Curse.”4 The challenge that God gives us is to choose Life and Blessing, to turn away from Death (the force of destruction) and Curse (the negativity that limits us). Yet what sounds so very simple becomes so very confusing in the moment-to-moment choices that we face. The Mind becomes an expert in rationalizing whatever choice might bolster the ego’s ambitions or defenses. What looks like a blessing in one moment may turn out to be a curse in the next. What seems like a choice for Life entangles us in the forces of Death. The simple challenge of “choosing Life” becomes infinitely more subtle.
This spiritual challenge of Nitzavim can only be taken up when we learn how to “stand before God.” In standing fully before God, we can finally embrace our whole selves completely. We can take responsibility for our choices. In standing before God we become true partners in the work of Creation.
I WAS ONCE ASKED to lead High Holy Day services at a large Mindfulness retreat that was to be taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher whose reputation for gentleness and wisdom drew hundreds of followers. The retreat was scheduled during the Jewish Holidays, and the organizers thought there might be some Jews at the retreat who would benefit from the presence of a rabbi. In preparing for the retreat, I wrote to Thich Nhat Hanh to explain what we’d be doing at his gathering and I sent him a few books about Judaism so that he’d have a better understanding of the importance that these days held for his Jewish students.
At the opening session, he welcomed the Jews who would be celebrating their holy days at the retreat. In a tone that was both incisive and tender he said, “It is my understanding that the purpose of all Jewish practice is to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence…… and that is Mindfulness.”
He understood that to stand in God’s presence means to stand outside the whirlwinds of change, anchored in the stillness of center, shining out the fullness of our own presence, attentive to the truth of this moment. From that still center, from that open-hearted awareness, the choice between Life and Death, Blessing and Curse at last becomes clear. Until we can stand before God in a state of calm, alert clarity, all the layers of distraction, turbulence and conditioning will rob from us the freedom of choice. And so as we rise to the challenge of choosing Life, we must learn to stand before God, or as Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “to live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence.”
I LIKE TO IMAGINE that Thich Nhat Hanh’s exposure to Jewish teaching deepened his understanding of the core practice of Mindfulness meditation, just as my own experience with Buddhist meditation has given me insights into how I might “live every moment in the awareness of God’s Presence.” One way that I might live up to this ideal is to bless the Source of every gift I receive – each awakening, each meal, each opportunity for celebrating this unique moment as a culmination of my life’s journey. (The Tradition advises us to say 100 blessings a day in order to affirm our awareness of the Divine Presence, in an attempt to remain conscious amid the constant stream of distractions and acknowledge the unseen miracles that are the foundation of existence.)
The challenge of Nitzavim goes a step further. The continual awareness of God’s Presence, which we affirm through the act of blessing, leads us to truly stand before God and pass into a covenantal love affair. Covenantal love requires that we stand up, accept our soul’s mission and take action to manifest our purpose and calling. Nitzavim reminds us that we reject that mission at our peril, and not only at our own peril. Nitzavim tells us that when we “walk in the stubbornness of our heart, (that is, resist our true destiny and work) the wet will be swept away with the dry.”5 (The innocent will suffer because of our negligence.) Nitzavim raises the stakes. Covenantal love calls forth the wisest and best from us and then warns us that there are consequences when we ignore that call.
1 Ezekiel 16:8-13
2 Deuteronomy 29:9-10
3 Hosea 2:2
4 Deuteronomy 30:19
5 Deuteronomy 29:18
6 Deuteronomy 10:16
7 Deuteronomy 30:6
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Nitzavim-va-Yeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
On Rosh HaShanah all aspects of yourself present themselves before Be-ing who G-ds you…in order to renew your commitment to Divine Guidance and its method of training…so that Be-ing who G-ds you will continue to evolve you as a Holy People… (Devarim 29:9-12
I rejoice in Be-ing, my soul is gladdened by the One who G-ds me, clothing me in the garments of salvation and righteousness, gleaming like the radiant appearance of a bride and groom (Isaiah 61).
According to tradition, last Shabbat we read a list of “curses” in parashat Ki Tav’o, so that all of the curses of the year that is ending will be exhausted before we begin the New Year. On the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, we always read parashat Nitzavim which comes between the “curses” and the New Year. (See B.T. Megillah 31b).
This parashah reminds us that the New Year renews our conscious relationship with Be-ing, and this mysterious partnership commits us to both its blessing and its “curse.” In order to enter the New Year in a spirit of joy, we need to see clearly that what may at first appear to us as a curse (alah) also contains Divine energy and will within it (Elah). Seeing our “curse” as a method of Divine training can help us begin to relieve our anxiety concerning facing a Day of Divine Judgment.
In order to continue to evolve you as a Holy People this Day. (Devarim 29:12).
Rashi comments that the evolving relationship with Be-ing is like the sustaining flow of time. Just as each day begins with darkness and continues with light, so Be-ing has shined upon you in the past and will do so again in the future. Your curses and afflictions help you maintain and stabilize your connection to Be-ing. Renewing the covenant means re-enlisting for a new course of training our souls by facing a new series of tests and challenges. By first examining all the previous year’s challenges, we can exhaust their hold on us and awaken refreshed to face a new day and its challenges. Rashi is teaching that we develop stability on the path, precisely through recognizing that the things we find difficult are essential parts of our soul’s training.
One great mystery of Rosh HaShanah is, how through doing teshuvah, our relationship with Be-ing can trump the karmic law of strict judgment. Since we may feel disheartened through identifying with a limiting view of ourselves, Moshe reminds us in this parashah of a more profound view.
Be-ing who G-ds you will continue to evolve you as Holy People…and is bound to continue to G-d you through the energies of Hesed (unconditional kindness), Gevurah (tough love), and Tif’eret (skillful compassion). For this conscious relationship and its method of soul training do not only involve Be-ing and your present state, but affect both that part of yourself that has already manifested in relation to Be-ing who G-ds you as well as that not yet evolved potential that is still within the Unconscious. (Devarim 29:11-14).
We can be happy through recognizing the “curse” as a method of soul training and be blessed with a peaceful heart, knowing that whenever we act without awareness, Be-ing will not be willing to pardon that, but will awaken us through the Divine soul training method, until these unconscious moments cease to come between us and Heaven. (Devarim 29:18-19).
Because Be-ing is always beyond the limits of our comprehension and consciousness, no law that we can comprehend can ever fully explain all of Be-ing’s power. Even though we commit ourselves to acting according to our best understanding of what the Torah requires of us, there is always much more to reality than our minds can ever grasp.
Be-ing who G-ds us is always a mystery even beyond whatever can be revealed to us in this entire Torah. (Devarim 29:28).
For that reason, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov often exhorted his Hasidim, “never despair.”
Once at Naropa, someone consulted an oracle and received a very frightening reading. When Reb Zalman was consulted, he said: “when you don’t like the reading, give it a positive interpretation.”
You should be happy regardless of what occurs, whether blessing or curse… and return to your Heart, from wherever Be-ing who G-ds you has placed you. Return to Be-ing who G-ds you and listen for the vibration of Divine command at that moment. (Devarim 30:1-2).
In the joy of returning from duality to Be-ing, one is poised to receive Divine guidance.
Then Be-ing who G-ds you redeems your Divine spark and through the power of Divine Love gathers you back from whatever dim state Be-ing that G-ds you had placed you in. (Devarim 30:3).
Regardless of how far you may think you are from integration and devequt (conscious communion with your inner source of holiness), Be-ing who G-ds you gathers you up from there… and returns you to the Land… and you can interface with it, even beyond Hochmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Descriminating Understanding). (Devarim 30:4-5).
The Source of our Be-ing is always present. Within time, we are always resting in the Source, emanating from it, or returning to it. Whenever there is a profound experience of returning to Be-ing, there is a proportionately deep response, of opening our hearts.
Then Be-ing who G-ds you opens your Heart and concealed love for Be-ing who G-ds you pours out through all parts of your deepest self, so you can know what it means to really be alive. (Devarim 30:6).
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great advocate for humanity’s fundamental goodness, teaches that Be-ing is not compelled by any karmic law. The essential nature of Divinity is compassion, which takes precedence over dualistic justice. So, on Rosh HaShanah, Be-ing can offer us the possibility of overcoming the karmic implications of the previous year’s divine training methods.
Be-ing who G-ds you overrides all the karmic implications of strict justice regarding all that you have done (during the previous year)… and is again just as happy with you as the moment when you were born. (Devarim 30:9).
In that sense, Rosh HaShanah is a deep re-birthing experience.
Our minds are often fascinated by mysterious and intriguing esoteric teachings and concepts. Although we may enjoy the process of learning to communicate in this way, we need to make sure our fascination for conceptualizing the mystery does not increase our confusion. However subtle and evocative our spiritual language may become, we are always speaking of basic human experience.
This Divine guidance through which I AM is connecting with us on Rosh HaShanah is not from somewhere beyond our own experience. It is not something so abstract that I can’t even explain it to myself. It is not beyond the realm of my own consciousness, so that I should think: how can I ever possibly be evolved enough to know what I need to do? (Devarim 30:12-13).
The Divine Guidance that moves us is as close as our own mouths and hearts. (Devarim 30:14).
So, on Rosh HaShanah, see clearly that I AM places within your own experience both Life and Good as well as Death and Evil; For I AM connects you on Rosh HaShanah to the great Love for Be-ing who G-ds you, so that you will desire to follow Her ways, attentive to Divine Guidance, ready to do what is necessary and what is right, so that you may live and evolve to reach the Land blessed by Be-ing who G-ds you. (Devarim 30:15-16).
I AM assures you on Rosh HaShanah that the parts of yourself that are easily diverted will perish. They will not long be able to obscure your fundamental humanness, which has the capacity to transcend the levels that descend from Binah. (Devarim 30:17-18).
The union of Divine Transcendence and Immanence on Rosh HaShanah, attests that I AM places before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse, so you may consciously choose Life… through loving Be-ing who G-ds you, deeply sensing its vibration, and remaining constantly aware of it…for Be-ing is the very essence of your Life, expressing itself as your humanness, through the energies of Hesed (unconditional kindness), Gevurah (tough love), and Tif’eret (skillful compassion), which Be-ing is bound to manifest. (Devarim 30:19-20).
May the holiness of Rosh HaShanah return us to Life.
May our hearts overflow with love for the Source of All.
May the bondage of last year’s karma be released.
And may we joyfully enter a new round of soul training
In the service of Be-ing.
Le-shanah tovah tikateivu.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
To Stand Before G-d
A chicken and a cow were walking down the street when they passed a billboard advertising the daily specials at a local restaurant. In bold type, the sign announced: two eggs any style only $1.99. Beneath this line, in different-colored letters, was the message: steak plus two side dishes—only $10.95.
Said the chicken to the cow: “Look at that—isn’t that something? There, in two simple lines, is our contribution to civilization. I provide the breakfast, you provide the dinner—what would humanity do without us?”
Replied the cow: “For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment.”
The Torah reading of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29-30) is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, as we prepare to stand before G-d to be judged for our deeds of the bygone year. These closing days of the year are a time for self-examination, for a thorough assessment of our mission in life and the steps we have taken—and need yet to take—toward its realization.
Nitzavim thus opens with Moses’ statement to the people of Israel: “You stand today, all of you, before G-d your G-d: your heads, your tribal leaders, your elders, your officers, and all men of Israel; your children, your wives, and the stranger in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”
But these verses seem to contain an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, Moses stresses the similitude of the people of Israel, their common denominator in that “You stand today, all of you, before G-d your G-d.” On the other hand, he individually identifies ten classes and types of Jew, from the leader to the water carrier, from the elder to the stranger.
The Torah is demanding from us a seemingly impossible task: to unite as a singular community before G-d, and, at the same time, to emphasize the qualities and talents unique to each individual. But if we stress our commonality, does this not require us to downplay our distinctions? And if we focus on our individual strengths, does this not invariably lead to feelings of variance from, and superiority over, the different other?
Back to the Source
The resolution of this paradox lies in the words, “before G-d your G-d.”
Indeed, when we view ourselves and our place in the community from our own, human perspective, we are compelled to choose between expressing our individuality or accentuating our commonality. A group of individuals might join in a financial endeavor, a scientific project or a humanitarian effort, each contributing of his individual knowledge, expertise and resources. In such a case, what unites them are their differences—the way in which their different talents and capabilities jointly enable the achievement of their goal. Or, a group of people might join to march for a cause, to vote a particular leader into office, to populate a land. In this case, it is not their differences that contribute to their unity, but their commonality as a mass of human beings, all equal in that each is no more and no less than one of the greater number.
But these are all “contributions.” We are lending a part of ourselves to the common cause, whether it is a talent or resource (emphasizing our individuality) or our body and membership (emphasizing our commonality). A “total commitment”—a commitment that embraces every aspect of ourselves—can only come when we stand before G-d, when we transcend our self-perceptions to submit to Him. For G-d is the essence and source of everything we are—of our character as well as our being, of each particular trait we possess as well as the simple and profound fact of our existence.
If we stand before G-d, totally and unequivocally committing ourselves to our Creator and the purpose for which He created us, we will find that our individuality and commonality are not at variance with each other. We will find, for example, that our leadership (for each and every one of us is a “head,” whether of our community, our department at the office, our family, or in some other sphere of influence in which others learn from us) need not be expressed only in “sophisticated,” elitist ways, but also in an attentiveness to the most commonplace areas of life; the rabbi delivering his Rosh Hashanah sermon might, for a change, speak not of global politics but of the “trivial” needs of his community. We will find that the reverse is also true: that when engaged in activities that belong to the “lowliest” of roles—in the wood-chopping and water-drawing chores of daily life—we actualize our loftiest and most sophisticated talents.
But first we must transcend the finite, self-bound perception that distinguishes between our “higher” and “lower” faculties, between our “specialties” and our “commonalities.” First we must stop “contributing,” and make that total commitment.
First, we must stand before G-d.
Based on a public letter issued by the Rebbe in the week before Rosh Hashanah of 5732 (1971) 
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
Notify me of follow-up comments by email.
Notify me of new posts by email.