These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE] Parshat Nitzavim-Va’Yelech: We’re in this together!

Posted on September 19, 2014 by Binyamin Cohen

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Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

דְּבָרִים כט:טScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.51.44 AM

“אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל”.

“Today you are all standing before the Lord your God, your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforces, every Israelite man.”

Parshat Nitzavim is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, the day when we all stand before the Lord our God. In fact, the “today” in the verse is often taken to be a reference to Rosh Hashanah. With this in mind, we can begin to understand our verse in a completely new light, especially significant for the Days of Awe.

Not only is it that we are standing today, rather, it is important that is is we who are standing. A close look at the verse will note that the use of the plural in this verse is inconsistent with the rest of the speech that follows. If this verse is supposed to be speaking about Rosh Hashana, what is the lesson to learn from the plural used here? What do “standing together” and Rosh Hashanah have to do with each other exactly? The first part of understanding this is to recall what exactly it is we are doing on Rosh Hashanah: that is, we are standing in judgment before God. The implication then, is that there something transformative about “standing together.” Therefore, we must ask, what does standing together do for judgement?

There is an idea that community “sweetens” judgement. How is this exactly? Our unity sets the community before ourselves. When we are in a community, we are forced to look at the picture, often putting the needs of the community before our own. Therefore, when God comes to judge us, he judges us a community, not as individuals. Our combined strength lifts us all up. When judged as an individual the odds are against us. However, when we are judged us as a community, our joint merit forces God to look upon us favourably, with mercy. Indeed, this is evident in the text of our prayers: we pray for we, not for me: everything is first person plural.

Our favour in God’s eyes is not merely a result of our community. It is also something inherent to us as Jews. God has promised us, as a people, His mercy, because we are his children. But how is it possible for any one person to merit the kind of attention and holiness that God’s mercy requires? Surely Man cannot reach such heights alone.

Therefore, we may be God’s children, but only together do we merit unconditional mercy. No matter what a child does, to their parents, they are always their child; there is no way for that connection to be severed. No matter the nature of relationship, you always someone’s child, and they are always your parent. So too we recall this relationship between us and God. No matter how unworthy we may be, we are ultimately God’s inseparable children. But to be holy enough to manifest that connection, we must come before Him as a community. The word “you” (plural) in our verse is spelled אתם. The letters of this word are an acronym for the phrase , “אל תשליכני מלפניך”/”do not cast me from before you.” When we say this line in Selichot, we remind God that when we are together no matter what we may have done. Not only do we not want God to cast us away, but we are reminding him that when we are a people together, a community, and therefore his children, he cannot cast us away.

More powerful even than this is no matter how outcast a Jew is feeling, they always part of the community; they cannot be cast off. All it can take to bring someone back to God is to feel part of the greater us. In fact, it is even the most important mitzvah in the Torah: love your neighbour as yourself is given in the context of the community. The way that we become a community is by realizing than none of us is complete without everyone else. We are all here together.

This Rosh Hashana and High Holy Days, let us all feel that inseparable connection to God and remember that no matter how distant or disconnected we may feel, we always have our community and we can never truly be cast away.

Shabbat shalom and Shana Tova!

Based on teachings from Netivot Shalom, by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky