Reading Nitzavim on Yom Kippur

Sep 10, 2013 by

Reading Nitzavim on Yom Kippur

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God, the Holy One of Blessing: you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer … ” (Deuteronomy 29)

The opening of Nitzavim grabs us by our lapels and looks each of us directly in the eye. All of you, each of you, whether you stand at the top or at the bottom of the food chain, whether you command the attention and admiration of many or whether your labor goes almost unnoticed, you stand this day, poised to enter into a relationship with God, a relationship that demands your full attention.

The opening has the urgency of an invitation that’s almost impossible to refuse. Every man, child, woman, outsider and insider is included in this round up. The portion continues as God addresses the people: “I make this covenant … not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and with those who are not with us here this day.”

Not only is everyone present included, but those who will come after, children and grandchildren, descendants and heirs are also included. This is a covenant of mythic proportions, a relationship between God and God’s people that transcends time.

Thirty years ago, Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l, and the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis decided that this challenge to the community should not be read solely on Shabbat Nitzavim. These editors of The Gates of Repentance, the High Holiday prayerbook used in Reform congregations, introduced this portion as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning.  As the new CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefeshis being developed, the editors are maintaining Nitzavim as an option for the Yom Kippur torah reading.

This innovation insured that many Jews would hear: “You stand this day, all of you … ” and as an invitation to the link between this eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people and the message of teshuvah/return that is at the center of Yom Kippur. The Gates of Repentance concludes the Torah reading with these words from our portion: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you, this day; I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”

Entering into covenant is a choice that opens the way to other choices. We are making our way through the month of Elul, the month that leads into the High Holidays and offers rich spiritual opportunities to begin to review, return and repair. Teshuvah is our process of considering how we’ve stumbled and then making amends, asking others to forgive us, and forgiving ourselves.

Every day during Elul, we blow the shofar. Like the opening words of Nitzavim, the shofar grabs us and shakes us awake to the possibilities of living our lives with greater attention, greater intention, and greater joy. The shofar calls us to choose life and blessing, through small acts of kindness, and through discovering the power of patience for ourselves and others.

This portion reminds us that we are in this together, whatever our roles in life. It reminds us that we are connected not only to those with whom we share time and place, but that our circles of responsibility are beyond our own sight.

Nitzavim reminds us that our choices today have consequences for our descendants, and indeed, for many we will never meet. In this New Year, may each of us choose life, blessing and joy.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. 

3 Comments

  1. Beautiful post. Great drash. Thanks.

  2. Art Grand

    I lost my father three weeks ago. In our congregation, the Rabbi and I take turns reaching Torah study on alternate weeks. We laid out the schedule weeks in advance. As it turned out, I was scheduled to teach on Shabbat Nitzavim. I had just finished Shiva. As all of you know, the first time teaching after a loss is a difficult experience. Here’s one of the texts I taught and a little of how I set it:

    In the last few weeks, I knew that the end was near, and I began to wonder how the great Chassidic masters had handled their own personal losses. The lives of the Chassidic masters are shrouded in mystery, and they are often romanticized. But I found one book – a series of stories by Nachman of Breslov’s greatest student, describing his personal conversations with his master.

    Each day, I would talk to my father, and each day I would study the stories. And eventually, there was a conversation with my father, and I knew it would be the last. He could hardly find the breath to talk, and he told me that he was no longer eating, and it was heard to stay awake. I knew at that moment that he had one foot in this world and one foot in the next. I would never talk to him again.

    I got off the phone, and I cried, and I picked up the book of stories – desperately hoping to find something, desperately hoping to find a secret about handling loss. And this is the story I read:
    Rav Nachman said that all of his Torah and all of his words were not for us alone, but also for “all who are not here today” – for future generations. I can’t tell you how many times we discussed this. He told me that his dream was to teach generations to come about the kindness that God did for us. He said that we must teach our children all of the Torah, and all of the wonders, and all of the works of God. And he recited this verse with great fervor: you must teach your children and your children’s children.

    Rav Nachman never imagined that I would read his words at just that moment. He never imagined that he would give me comfort. But he taught anyway, hoping that his students, and their children, and their children’s children would learn of God’s kindness.

    Rav Nachman faced tremendous suffering, including the loss of severalchildren. He never knew that I would read his words, that he would be able to comfort me at just the right moment. But he clung to the hope that life was for the good, that somehow, we would create a better world.

    This is the Jewish view of time. And this is the essence teshuvah. The final chapter has not been written. Whatever we have done, however we have lived, our lives can have an impact. We can bring more good to the world than we ever imagined.

    The congregration knew that I would be teaching that day, and we had wonderful attendance at Torah study. Among them was a teenage girl who is going to be my madricha for the seventh grade. Yes, indeed. Our choices today have consequences for our descendants, and indeed, for many we will never meet.

  3. Sue Levi Elwell

    Art, thank you for sharing this powerful drash. It has been a privilege to work with you over the years. This post introduces you to others who share your love for Torah, the Torah of our teachers, the Torah that you live. Thank you so much for sharing these words with us at this very tender time of year, and at this time of transition in your life.

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