“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 HaNefesh, is 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.