Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelech Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30
“Atah nitzavim, you are standing, all of you, this day before God. You, your leaders, and the most humble of the people.” So begins this week’s Torah portion. I cannot help but think of how in just a few short weeks we ourselves will be standing in judgment.
Standing in judgement, or just plain standing, is not uncommon in Judaism. We stood at Mount Sinai, we stand for the Amidah as well as for other prayers. Both are part of the past and the present practice. In this case, it’s a significant event we are marking.
Whenever we arrive at a significant time or place, it’s only natural to pause and ponder how we got there. What brought us here — what journeys, what happenstance, what effort or accident? This becomes a time to stop, evaluate and judge ourselves on how we have or have not met our goals and expectations. It may mark the boundary between one period of our lives and another, between what was and what will be. It’s a unique point that we can connect with our past and shape it for our future. Here we are just at that point in the Sinai story. We are going from the generation who experienced Egypt and Sinai directly to all the later generations who experience it as part of their history.
We think of the first and later generations as connected because it is written, “Not only with who those standing is the covenant made, but also with those not there.”
And the purpose of that covenant?
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, in his book “God in Search of Man,” devotes a chapter to this idea. It is titled “Israel’s Commitment.” He addresses this expansive nature of time with a section he titles “Loyalty to a Moment.” Heschel writes: “We accept events that happened at moments gone by, as if those moments were still present, as if those moments were happening now.” What was a brief, one-time event long ago thus becomes a “current event.”
For the High Holidays, we engage in a special preparation and process called teshuvah, translated as repentance. However there’s another meaning to the Hebrew root shuv, and that is “return.” We are returning to commitment, to covenant, to our promise and our ideal. This year and every year at this time. Standing, moving, returning, all our journeys can be about finding your center, finding your place. Again.
Cantor Henry Shapiro is the spiritual leader at Parkway Jewish Center. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.