Sunday, October 02, 2005

Parashat Nitzavim - All On That Day


Devarim 29:9: “You are standing here today…”

Rashi says that “today” is the last day of Moshe’s life; that, from here to the last words of the written Torah at the end of Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Beracha constitutes a single uninterrupted narrative. Adding another dimension, the Zohar says that “today” was Rosh HaShana.

It is common, among commentaries on this week’s Parasha, to observe that the word Teshuva appears seven times in this Parasha, in one form or another. Teshuva. “Return.” Generally translated as “Repentance.”

This Parasha is read during the Season of Return – on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShana – and the powerful imagery and uses of the notion of Return are replayed throughout this Parasha in intricate and powerful counterpoint.

How does the Parasha open? With the words Atem Nitzavim – “You are standing.” In discussing Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the Rabbis of the Talmud transpose the scene of Forgiveness and Cleansing from its original textual location, Parashat Shelach – where Moshe confronts G-d in the aftermath of the Sin o f the Spies – to Parashat Ki Tissa, after the Sin of the Golden Calf. In describing the process and act of Atonement – which we shall define closely in a moment – the Rabbis focus on the expression (Shemot 34:5) Va-yered H’ be-‘anan va-yityatzev ‘imo sham… - “And G-d came down in a cloud and stood with him there…” G-d stood and waited for Moshe. This is the interpretation given to this image by the Rabbis. It is the source of the notion of Atonement as “Seek G-d where G-d is to be found.” The verb va-yityatzev means “He stood,” but is a forceful standing, in the sense of: “And he planted himself.”

G-d is planted firmly, unmoving, waiting for Moshe to arrive. Waiting for the penitential process to take its effect. Then, G-d will dispense Atonement.

We call Kippur “Day of Atonement.” But it is not merely that we Atone. Rather, G-d offers us Atonement – the word can be read in either direction. The Hebrew word Kappara – Atonement – comes from a root meaning “Curved, rounded, cover over.” Indeed, the Covering for the Ark in the Tabernacle is called Kaporet, from the same root. And Atonement is a two-way act. Israel Atones for its sins; G-d grants Israel Atonement for sin. The notion of Relationship is fundamental to the concept of Atonement, (sometimes cleverly written out, in the English, as “At-one-ment”) which is why this week’s Parasha speaks of a Covenant. A renewed Covenant – reaffirming the relationship first established with Abraham.

In his discourses on Teshuva, Rabbi Soloveitchik analyzes Biblical source uses of the word Teshuva. He comes to the demonstrable conclusion that the word means, not merely to Go Back, but to Circle Back. The act of Return, as expressed in this word, means Coming Full Circle, returning to one’s original place. It is the image of the Penitent, we who know we have failed in certain aspects of our lives, and who seek to Return to a state before our failures. We want to Recycle our souls. Teshuva, Repentance, is not a straight line, not a back-and-forth. It is 360-degrees of self-examination, of hard work and self-transformation.

Perhaps the image is this: that we only truly perform the act of Teshuva after we have exhausted every other possibility. This image can only be represented in the form of a circle, literally “all-encompassing.” A straight line leaves too much out.

As G-d was Firmly Planted, standing and waiting for Moshe on that first Yom Kippur, so we are described as Nitzavim – we stand, firmly planted. Waiting for G-d to come to us, just as as G-d waited for Moshe.

The Zohar, again, says that this “Today” is Rosh HaShana. It is the day of G-d’s kingship, the birthday of the cosmos. Lest G-d come upon us unawares, we stand firmly in place, unwavering, prepared to receive the Monarch of Creation. Although we do not know the outcome of this confrontation, we do not shrink from it. It is a marvelous image, indeed, and one that clearly emerges from the text, bringing forward the use of the words va-yityatzev / nitzavim.

Today, we are Nitzavim. The Parasha’s opening phrases describe three types of Israelites. You – the ones Moshe is addressing –are Nitzavim: Planted firmly in place. But also, he says, I establish this Brit with (verse 14)” those of whom there are some here among us, standing (‘omed) today”, as well as (verse 14) “with whoever is not here (einenu) with us today.” In each case – Nitzavin, ‘Omed, Einenu – the word “Ha-yom” repeats. There are three ways in which we can approach G-d, three ways in which we receive G-d on this most awesome of days, Rosh HaShana. We plant ourselves firmly, unshakeably awaiting G-d’s approach, and ready to accept what comes to us. Or, we merely stand – perhaps trembling – stand in a way that, should the brunt of the onslaught strike us, we may fall, or be blown away. Or, we merely absent ourselves. G-d will arrive, and will search for us in vain. Yet, like Adam in the Garden, we will be found.

The commentators on this Parasha have much to say about the notion of individuals losing themselves in the crowd. The verses 29:17-20 describe one who rejects Torah, and the consequences. Examples of traditional commentaries are:

Akeidat Yitzhak, who says: This describes one who says to himself, ‘G-d only punishes those who reject the Covenant. But I have not even accepted it in the first place! I will be safe!’

Ramban, who says: This describes the one who says, ‘I will follow my own heart, and I will be all right.’

Ibn Ezra, who says: This describes the one who says, ‘Even though I personally reject Torah, I will be safe, because I am surrounded by those who accept the Torah.’

In fact, there are two fundamental concepts of Teshuva: there is National Teshuva, and there is Personal Teshuva. And there is the ultimate effect of Teshuva, which is the transformation of the cosmos.

Rabbi Soloveitchik discerningly parses out the distinction between individual and national Teshuva. Taking his lead from the dispute in the Gemara between Rebbi and the Rabbis, he pursues Rebbi’s statement that the Essence of Yom Kippur in and of itself – itzumo shel yom – is sufficient to effect Atonement for all Israel, even if individuals do not atone. To tie this to the commentaries on this week’s Parasha, let us observe that there is a certain validity to those who believe that all will be well with them, as long as they remain among the group of Klal Israel.

The ‘Ishah Shunamit – the Shunamite Woman – responding to the Prophet Elisha’s offer to repay her kindness, speaks the cryptic words, “Among my people I dwell.” This is one of the most commonly-cited texts for Rosh HaShana homilies, and it underscores the group aspect of the process of Teshuva.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik does not quote from this incident, he does lay out the distinction between Individual Repentance and Repentance for Kehilat Israel. The latter, he says, is the form of Atonement effected by Kippur itself, with no requirement for individual atonement.

The goat sent off into the wilderness on Yom Kippur is the agent that bears away our sins. In order for this to be effective, the Kohen must do atonement. But the entire nation is not required to repent. It would appear that at least one person must, but it is not clear how many are required for the group atonement to take effect. It is clear, though, that the notion of losing oneself among the “Multitude of the Just” is a valid one. Halachically, while each of us must repent and perform the specified acts of Teshuva for our individual sins, the itzumo shel yom – the Essence of the Day – performs, in our time, the function previously filled by the Scapegoat: it atones for Knesset Israel, for Kehillat Israel. For Klal Israel.

What is the transformative power of Teshuva?

It has to do with each one of us placing ourselves in a state of preparedness. To Return, one must be ready to return. We do not return to our point of origin by accident, by wandering aimlessly – indeed, if we wander unknowingly across our original place, we will as easily leave it again, never realizing where we have been. This is the case, for example, of Yaakov, who wakes from a dream and says (Bereshit 28:16) “G-d is surely in this place, and I did not know it.” Knowing where we came from, where we are, where we are going – these are all metaphors for our spiritual state. Yaakov did not know where he was going, hence he did not know where he was. Once he discovered where he was, he not only established his forward direction, but set in motion the process that would ultimately lead to his return.

In our Parasha, verse 14 ends, “… ve’et asher einennu po ‘imanu ha-yom…” – “… and with the one who is not here with us today.” In the narrative of Sefer Bereshit, the word “einennu”, meaning “he is not” is the epithet applied repeatedly to Yosef. His brothers are forever saying, We are twelve brothers, sons of one man. Our youngest is with his father, and another one “einenu” – as Dr. Seuss might have said: He just isn’t present. (“But you – you are you. Now isn’t that pleasant?”)

Three type of Jews go out to greet the Creator of the Universe on This Day – the awesome day of Rosh HaShana, which is also the final day of Moshe’s life. There are those who accept that they must take what comes, and steel themselves for it, knowing that one can spend a lifetime preparing, but the moment of readiness is what counts. There are those who, unsure of themselves, know that they are required to be there, but doubt that they will be equal to the task. And there are those who merely do not come, who hide like Adam in the Garden, afraid to show themselves naked before their Creator.

And yet, it is also this final group – the einenu – who have the ability to transform themselves. For they have given up all hope. Unlike the second group, who appear, but stand uncertainly, this last group know for a certainty that they can not face G-d. And it is only out of total destruction that rebirth can arise.

It is only when the Hebrews had been so beaten down that we forgot G-d, only then did G-d intervene and bring us out of Mizraim. Only when Abraham and Sarah had completely given up the notion of Sarah having children that G-d steps in and creates the miracle that bring Yitzhak into the world – which is the Torah reading of Rosh HaShana. And it is Yosef – and not his brothers – who, by planting himself firmly (Nitzavim…) in Mizraim, by giving up on the notion of ever returning to his family, to his home, to his father, then becomes the agent of the salvation of all Israel. And, though he does not return in his lifetime, Moshe has his bones brought up out of Mizraim to their final resting place in the city of Shechem.

Whether we are nitzacim, or ‘omdim, or einenu, we must prepare to greet G-d as G-d arrives on Rosh HaShana. When we receive G-d at the awesome moment of the birth of the cosmos, G-d will then receive us when we come searching, begging to be taken back into the close relationship we all yearn for. There are not coincidences in Torah, and grammar can sometimes be enlightening. Today, we are nitzavim – present tense. On Kippur, G-d will be yityatzev – future tense. As though to say that G-d’s unconditional acceptance of us is dependent, not on our perfected actions, not on our unflagging adherence to every Aleph of Halachah, but on our unconditional acceptance of G-d.

May all our prayers be accepted for the good. May the blessings of peace, of peacefulness, of peace of mind dwell among us and among all people. May this year be a year of health and prosperity, of laughter and rejoicing, of love and compassion, and may all blessings come to all Israel – and, as G-d promised us through Abraham: may all nations of the world bless themselves through us. May the Redemption come speedily and in our days, and if we can not hasten the Redemption, let us still never cease trying, not even for a moment, but always be in a state of Readiness. Readiness to reach out to hold one another up. Readiness to greet G-d. Readiness to Return.

Shana tova.

Yours for a better world.


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