Shabbat Nitzavim: We Stand Together Even When Miles Apart

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:

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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!

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Where Do You Stand?

Where do you stand as a Jew? On this Shabbat we are called upon to focus upon this question. Nitzavim means “to stand firm” and in these days, as we count down the final hours until Rosh HaShanah, this Shabbat is a moment of welcome quiet. Even as the students among us have just begun their new Academic Year, Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of our Spiritual Year, and it’s time to consider where you stand – not where you find yourself, but where you stand, firmly and clear-eyed, aware of what your stance means in the world.

The most well-known text within this week’s parashah is probably Devarim 30.10 and following:

י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס}

10 if You will listen to the voice of G-d, to keep G-d’s commandments and statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to G-d with all your heart, and with all thy soul.

יא  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

יב  לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יג  וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יד  כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.  {ס}

14 But the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

טו  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil… http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0530.htm

These words spoken by Moshe in his parting speech to the people of Israel are often used to justify rabbinic authority to interpret laws without any sense of Divine sanction. However they are also seen as encouraging: (1) Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming, but it’s not, really – once you get into it, there’s a rhythm and a sense to the structure of Jewish life that carries you quite supportively. (2) Verse 14 has been interpreted as indicating verbal teshuvah, atonement – the words are right there in your mouth and in your heart, just let them out. And (3) these words are spoken to us as we stand, all together, on the other side of the Jordan River, looking across at the destination we’ve dreamed of together for so long.

The second of the double parashah that we read this week is called VaYelekh, which translates as “going”. The two names teach a deep truth: you cannot begin to move purposely toward your goal until you know where you are starting from, where you stand – and your going is dependent upon the strength of the place from which you come.

This Motza’ey Shabbat (the end of Shabbat) Jews all over the world will gather for a special evening time of Selikhot study and prayer, to help us focus upon just these essential questions. And then, soon after, we will be together, welcoming the start of a spiritual New Year, considering ourselves and our lives. With the help of your Torah study, may you see more clearly than ever where you stand, and may you stand more firmly than ever when you consider where you are going.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Standing Firm And Walking It Forward

We are reading a double parashah this week. The first of the two readings is called standing firm in place, and the second is walking, going forward, toward something. One teaching we can derive from the fact that these two parashot are often read together is that we are to be doing both of these apparently utterly contradictory things at the same time. It is something we do all the time in Judaism, and it is vital.

 

What does it look like to stand firm and to walk at the same time? It’s a way of separating out that which is really important from that which is simply familiar and comfortable. It’s something we strive to do in our congregational family in many ways:

 

Shabbat and Holy Day prayer

With all Jews, we stand firm with the tradition that Shabbat starts on Friday night and goes through Saturday.

We walk it forward in exploring different ways to observe Shabbat (kirtan-style Kley Kodesh services, Kabbalat Shabbat dinner instead of services, etc)…not to mention declaring that Shabbat starts when we can be together to make it, not necessarily at sundown.

 

With all other Jews, we stand firm with our holy day dates, even though they’re inconvenient.

We walk it forward by figuring out ways to bring the holy day to us – on this Rosh HaShanah, if you can’t come to morning services to hear the Shofar being blown, hopefully you can at least make it to Tashlikh at the river, where we’ll blow the biggest blast we can for you.

 

Wherever our congregation expresses our sense of what it means here and now to be Jewish, we negotiate this balancing act, between tradition and thoughtful inheritance. 

We stand firm in our belief that there is a value in the tradition we’ve inherited, because we belong to the people that has created it and passed it on in every generation. 

We walk it forward, because we are now the generation that receives it and figures out how to keep it alive and vibrant so that it can help us figure out our purpose in life – and, hopefully, those who will come after us.

 

In the Torah, the first word, Nitzavim, is in the plural: we are all standing firm together, each of us helping each other to receive the tradition, to understand it and do it. And the second word, VaYelekh, is in the singular, indicating that each one of us has the privilege and the responsibility of carrying it onward. Each of us makes all of us, and only when we are all voices are welcomed in the congregation do we lift up our voices in our shir tikvah, our “song of hope”. 

 

On this Shabbat, may you feel more honestly your own voice in the myriad harmonies of the Voice of Torah that strengthens us to stand firm, and inspires us to go forward, together.