I’m so tired of “well this Jewish employee doesn’t do X so it can’t be a Jewish thing.”
– tweeted on Thursday September 26 2019, 138 “likes”
You don’t have to speak Twitter, understand “likes” or use social media at all to feel the frustration that prompted that posting. We Jews, and those who love us and share our lives, are a tiny, highly misunderstood minority in the population of the United States.
Our holy days are not nationally recognized.
Our dietary restrictions are not respected.
Our religious teachings are blurred into a “Judaeo-Christian” ethic.
It’s a lot of pressure. Ever since Jews were invited into the larger society in the Modern Era, we’ve been trying to take our place there as equals – and feeling that we have no choice but to give up our distinctiveness in order to be accepted.
Parashat Nitzavim begins with these words
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
You stand this day, all of you, before HaShem your G*d,
every person in Israel.
Our tradition, reading closely and lovingly, understands these profound opening words in several ways:
- Nitzavim means to stand firmly, to take a stance, to be rooted in one’s sense of self and conviction. We seek the strength to stand firm in the face of misunderstanding, disrespect, and dismissal of what is important to us as Jews.
I was recently invited to speak at a lunch meeting of a Clackamas County department, as part of its “learning about diversity.” After I explained that Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night and that I didn’t hold it against my non-Jewish friends when they scheduled a happy hour just then, the director of the diversity program asked if perhaps I needed to be less rigid in my practice.
- Nitzavim means to stand with others; it is a plural form. And so we learn that we stand more firmly when we stand together, holding hands and facing challenges to our identity as a group of supportive companions.
As our Israeli cousins point out, if you want to be understood as a Jew, you should live in Israel, the only place in the world where Jewish practices, holidays and ethics are the norm from which all others diverge.
But we are here, in Exile in the United States – and it has been a pretty comfortable Exile for many years. If only we could come to understand how much our identity depends upon each other even when we haven’t met? I knew a woman who was devastated when her boss called a required all-company meeting for erev Rosh HaShanah. “How could you?” she said to him, “you know I’m Jewish and that it’s important to me.” “But your colleague who’s Jewish told me that it didn’t matter to him!” came the reply.
- In our text, we find ourselves standing nitzavim before HaShem Elohim. It’s interesting to consider that both words for that which is holy are used, both the personal HaShem and the more transcendent Elohim. It is taught that this refers to our inner sense of self and our outer acts.
It may be that some of us are unable to take the day off for Rosh HaShanah, and it may be that some of us don’t feel compelled to do so. Some pressures come from without, and some from within. The real challenge of Shabbat Nitzavim, only one day away from the eve of the New Year of 5780, is, as Hasidic teaching would put it, to find an authentic way to balance your outside and your inside; that which you are compelled to do and that which you choose to do; that which you didn’t mean and that about which you didn’t care.
What choices can you make that allow you to stand with integrity in the sense of who you mean to be, and what you want to stand for, in the world?
And if you’re Jewish and you’re not observing Rosh HaShanah in any way, and some non-Jew is talking with you about it, please do the rest of us the favor to explain. We don’t all have to be walking in lock step, yet if we are able to maintain respect for each other’s paths, we’ll be standing firm wherever our Exile may take us.
Shabbat shalom, Shanah 5780 Tovah Tikateyvu!