By Rabbi Amanda Golby
Shabbat 11th/12th September 2020/23rd Elul 5780
Nitzavim, often combined, as this year, with Vayelech, is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, and for many reasons seems appropriate: ‘You stand this day all of you before the Eternal your God’, and goes on to detail who stands. Women are included, which is not always the case, though it is not exactly in the same way as the men, and all strata of society, which is both inclusive and yet may highlight divisions with which we are uncomfortable. The important thing is that everyone is there, with a reminder that we are all entering the covenant, that is, reaffirming what happened on Mount Sinai, and it is not only those who ‘stand here with us this day’, but also ‘those who are not here with us this day’. This may mean those who have chosen not to stand with the rest of the community, or, as the commentators stress, all future Jews whether by birth or by choice. It also serves to emphasise the whole community together, as normally is the case over the Yamim Noraim.
This year however it is different. Even where services are being held, not everyone will be able to attend, and certainly not all at the same time, and we will be physically separate, as much as hopefully spiritually close. We will be participating in services, in a range of ways, but, hopefully, still aware that, though not physically all standing together, we are nevertheless still our individual communities, and part of a much larger whole, and symbolically all standing before the Eternal our God.
The beginning of Nitzavim somehow emphasises the public. However the Yamim Noraim are both public and private, as, together and alone, we think about our actions, our behaviour, and how we can hope to change during the coming year. One of the best- known verses is ‘ki hamitzvah hazot, for this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach…. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it’. Many of our teachers regarded this mitzvah as referring to teshuvah, particularly as in the previous ten verses, we find the root ‘shuv’, return, many times. It is also important that it is truly accessible. In the words of Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe: ‘It is like someone who has lost a diamond in a haystack. They will not give up their efforts to find it, no matter how long it takes, for they are sure it is there. Likewise, the Torah assures you that the word of God is near to you, and within your comprehension. Do not leave off your efforts, for you will surely discover eventually that you understand it’.
The penultimate verse is one of my favourite verses of the whole Torah. God says: ‘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’. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: ‘Choose life’ is the great legacy of the Hebrew Bible…’ However, life, and all our prayers for life throughout the Yamim Noraim, may not, as we are too painfully aware, refer to length of days. I believe that it refers to the quality of our lives, and, how, we choose to live, in all those areas where we have a choice. That seems particularly important to remember this year.