Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashanah: What if Today Was “This Day?”

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim and Rosh Hashana

Shabbat and holiday greetings to all!

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is read in close proximity to Rosh
Hashanah, and is often combined with the next parsha, Vayelech. Nitzavim means “standing,” or “stationed,” and so the portion opens with Moshe collecting the people all together, so that they may hear his pleas for faithfulness and unity. Nitzavim- like Rosh Hashanah- is all about our
choices: blessing or curse, life or death, embracing our spiritual potential or
giving in to our lesser desires.

The central image of Nitzavim is Moshe standing before the assembled people, urging them to be loyal to God and one another. In fact, the first few verses lay out an inclusive vision of Jewish community:

“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your
tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God . . . . . . . ” (Deuteronomy/ Devarim 29:9 -11)

A straightforward interpretation is this: unless the Jewish community is truly inclusive, across lines of gender, age, status, and class, (and sexual orientation, I would add) we are not truly “entering into the covenant.”

That’s always a relevant lesson!

Our teacher Rashi quotes a powerful midrash (creative interpretation) which reframes the image of the collected people from another perspective:

Rashi:

“[The verse says, “this day,” which] teaches us that on the day of his death,
Moshe assembled Israel in the presence of the Holy Blessed One, to bring them into the covenant.”

It’s a startling image: on the day of his death, Moshe was spending his last
hours bringing the people together and sharing his spiritual vision with them. What’s so powerful about this midrash is how it connects with the themes of Rosh Hashanah coming up next week: the themes of mortality, meaning, and ultimate values.

The liturgy on Rosh Hashanah urges us to consider life’s fragility; this
midrash, read the week before, asks us to consider just what we would do if it were truly “this day,” the day of our passing. Would any of us spend our final hours bringing people together in unity and peace as Moshe is imagined to do? Would we want to share our deepest
commitments, to God and humanity, with our family and community? Would we impart our vision of the good life with our loved ones? Would we, like Moshe, not waste a moment on bitterness, but instead give our last energies over in the service of our highest ideals?

Each of us who enter a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has the opportunity to think deeply about how we spend our days; the example of Moshe, from our parsha, can inspire us to greater urgency in the task of authentic, covenantal living. None of us know which day is “this day;” perhaps Judaism’s genius is to ask us to consider that each day may
be our last, and is thus worthy of living to the greatest extent of our intentionality.

With warmest wishes for a sweet and healthy New Year,

rnjl

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