Whenever we read Parshat Nitzavim (literally “Standing”) we know that Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner. During Moses’ final address to the Israelites, he encourages them to be loyal to the Almighty and to observe His commandments. He recounts Israel’s history and reviews many of the laws which had already been revealed.
There are 613 commandments, which can indeed be very intimidating. Yet, Moses assures the people that the mitzvot (commandments) are well within their grasp.
It is quite fitting that Parshat Nitzavim is read on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Hashanah. It stands in stark contrast to last week’s Torah portion, in which we read the Tochecha, the long rebuke and warning about what would befall the Jews if they choose to abandon the Torah. Nitzavim provides a much needed antidote to such negativity and reminds us that we can all please God if only we try.
Thematically, this portion is also inextricably tied to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. The word which most often comes to mind during this holy season is “teshuvah” (repentance), and the word “lashuv” (to return) appears in our parasha seven times! This reminds us that this is indeed the season of repentance, during which we can approach God with a contrite heart and expect total forgiveness for our misdeeds.
My colleague and friend, Rabbi Mark Greenspan, points to three verses in this Torah portion that make it abundantly clear that we can enter the High Holy Days expecting God’s encouragement and forgiveness: Atem nitzavim hayom lifnei Adonai eloheichem: “You are standing before the Lord Your God TODAY.”
That is the spirit with which we need to come to synagogue. This verse is the beginning of Moses’ final address to Israel. He reminds them that everyone must answer to God — from the most important to the most lowly person. Every person counts. Everyone can stand proudly before God.
Lo itchem livadchem anochi koret et habrit hazot: Moses goes on to say: I’m not making this covenant only with you — but with those who are here and those who are not here. This is a strange expression. Who are those who aren’t present? Could it be those who are not well enough to be present or those who have become alienated from Jewish life? God is here with all of us — even the people who are not present. In other words, we are not alone. God is present and rooting for us!
We are here with the generations that preceded us and those who will follow. We have a responsibility, not to ourselves, but to all people. We are a link in a great chain of tradition.
Lo bashamayim hee: Moses goes on to encourage Israel by telling them that living a life of Torah is not too difficult or too demanding for them. Lest they think the Torah is too abstract or too demanding or too foreign, Moses says, “Lo bashamayim hee,” The Torah is not in heaven: It is as close to you as your own heart. If you want, you can live up to this unique challenge. It is up to you to make the Torah your own.
Parashat Nitzavim primes us for “Jewish Prime Time” — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Let us venture into the Days of Awe confident that we all count, that God is with us and that our holy Torah is there for the taking!
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova Umetukah (a happy and sweet New Year). JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, retired pulpit rabbi and Navy chaplain, is former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.