"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
This week's parashah / Torah portion includes one of our people's defining moments: the revelation at Mount Sinai.
With a real sense of the dramatic, the Torah describes this moment:
"Now Mount Sinai smoked all over, since Adonay had come down upon it in fire; its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and all of the mountain trembled exceedingly. Now the shofar sound was growing exceedingly stronger--Moshe kept speaking, and God kept answering him in the sound." (Sh'mot/Exodus 19:18-19)
I've often tried to imagine what it was like to stand at the bottom of that mountain, hear what our ancestors heard, see what our ancestors saw. It must have been overwhelming to all the senses . . . intense and awe-filled.
In the summer of 1979, I had the opportunity to travel to the site referred to today as Mount Sinai. Even though I was engaged as one of four counselors leading 80 teenagers through the Sinai desert, I still had the time to pick up my head and look where we were: a vast, stark, unchanging landscape. Not a vestige of fire and smoke, not a hint of thunder, shofar and the voice of God. The stage was empty. My surroundings conspired to teach me the limitations of my mortality.
Today the mountain referred to in the travel books as Mount Sinai (the site of the the Santa Katarina Monastery) is indistinguishable from the surrounding mountains in the Sinai wilderness. If ever the pyrotechnics described in Sh'mot/Exodus did take place on that mountain, if ever God's voice was somehow sensed by the Israelite former slaves huddled at the foot of the mountain, there is no perceptible trace today. Mount Sinai looks like any other height in that neighborhood of awe-inspiring, beautifully tinted hills.
What a perfect setting for God's definitive collective revelation to an entire people. The message of that venue is that there is not one locale to which we must return in order to receive God's message to us. We don't really know which height was the height of Sinai. There is no trace because we should not be able to trace a path back to that place. God met us, as a people, in the middle of nowhere because God can be accessible to us in the middle of anywhere.
This week's parashah / Torah portion opens with the rather peremptory divine command: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
"God said to Avram: get yourself out from your country, from your homeland and from your father's house to the country I will show you."
No, "hi, my name is . . . ." No, "I've got an interesting opportunity for you." Not even an "Ahum, let me introduce myself . . . ."
Just "get up and go."
As stunning as God's opening to Avram is, the patriarch's response is even more breathtaking:
So, Avram got up and went as God commanded . . . and took with him his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai and all their possessions . . . .
For this tremendous act of faith, our tradition lauds Avram (at the end of this week's Torah reading, re-named Avraham / Abraham) as "the faithful servant of God." In this week's haftarah, God refers to Avram as "my friend." Over and over, we will see Avram/Avraham respond unquestioningly and with alacrity to every command of God's save for one: to warn the residents of S'dom and Amorrah that they are facing destruction. At that moment, Avraham, the faithful, unquestioning servant, challenges God's judgment.
But at this moment of "you don't know Me, but get up and leave everything and everyone you know and I'll make you a great nation" Avram simply does. And we hear no protest from his wife, Sarai either. The text leaves room for us to posit that they may have been of one mind. Getting up, going, not knowing to where.
We need to pause for a moment in the narrative to appreciate the depth of courage this took: My son and daughter-in-law, both raised in Israel in bi-lingual homes, moved to the States over the summer so that my son could go to graduate school. Aryeh and Michal both speak and read English. They've both visited the States to meet American relatives. They knew before they landed that they had a maternal back-up-system in place should anything go awry. and yet, I watch the irm confront all sorts of cultural challenges. Things are just done differently. Organizations work differently. People's expectations of exchanges are not the same.
Aryeh and Michal are way ahead of the game of cultural transition compared to Avram and Sarai: Aryeh and Michal spoke the language, could look up New Hampshire on a map, had a welcoming committee at the airport . . . Avram and Sarai simply left home and had no idea where they were going and what would happen to them. And yet they left.
Lots of people have faith. Few of us who describe ourselves as people of faith would be willing to simply place our fate and future, and the well-being of our families in the hands of the Unseen.
When I moved into a new neighborhood in Beit HaKerem, Jerusalem, when I became the rabbi of the Masorti congregation there, I became friends with my upstairs neighbors: the American basketball player Billy Thompson, his wife and young children. Billy was playing basketball for the Jerusalem Ha'Poel team at the time. Having a 6ft. 7in. upstairs neighbor was very handy when it came to building my Sukkah!
Billy and his wife are passionate Christians. Their faith is very deep. When Billy's unrenewable contract with Ha'Poel expired, he and his wife prepared to return to the States. He had no offer from his previous NBA team or any other. We were having coffee one day and I asked: "Aren't you nervous? Just packing up and going back to the States with no job? No means of supporting yourselves?"
With perfect calm and tranquility Billy replied: "God will show us where we are to go and what we are to do." This wasn't a sound byte for a Christian radio station, this was the way these people lived their lives. I found myself wondering if, under similar circumstances, I would be as sanguine about placing my life and the lives of my family members in God's hands.
Avram and Sarai (and Billy and his wife, for that matter) found that stepping out into the unknown and trusting to God to show them the way to a fulfilling and meaningful life worked out just fine. Perhaps opening ourselves to a little of that kind of faith will enrich and deepen our own lives . . .
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
This week, as we read the opening verses of the Torah, the biblical account of creation, we hope to find insight into the most fundamental questions of existence: what are we doing here? Why did God create at all? Why is there illness and natural disaster and evil if God is all good?
For a long time, now, I've found some sense, if not complete reassurance and comfort, in a specific reading of these opening passages of Breishit/Genesis which I thought I'd share with you as we embark on Shabbat Breishit of our new year 5773:
Most rabbis and biblical scholars will acknowledge that translation is, in large part, commentary. For all that we understand biblical Hebrew quite well, there is often ambiguity in the language canonized as sacred text . . . ambiguity that challenges us and encourages us to bring our own questions and our own insights to the text. That kind of inquiry leads to inspiring and engaging commentary. The tools of etymology and cultural and social history help us get closer and closer to what may have been the original intent of the text as preserved and transmitted to us.
So let us look at the first two verses of the Torah:
א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם:
If you were asked to recite this passage in English, you would probably begin: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " This is a reasonable translation that was well-established in English translations for decades.
I invite you to read this version of these verses from the highly regarded Jewish Publication Society revised translation from 2000:
"When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light."
More evocative still is Everett Fox's brilliant translation (1995) which reflects Professor Fox's commitment to the sources of biblical translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, developments in biblical scholarship since then, and great sensitivity to the literary profundity of biblical Hebrew. The Fox translation reads:
"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light!"
Both the JPS translation and the Fox translation reflect a reading of the Hebrew which denies a popular, if perhaps mistaken, belief, that nothing existed before God's first act of creation except for God. Here we read that an "unformed and void" earth or an earth of "wild and waste" existed at the time God began to create. There was "a deep" or Ocean, there was darkness . . . . I am left with the impression of a state of seething chaos.
The nature of the passages which follow embody God's purpose, in my reading of God's creating acts: What follows is an orderly and patterned progression:
Let there be light!
Let there be a dome amid the waters
Let the dry land be seen
Let the earth sprout forth
And there was light
God made the dome
It was so.
It was so, The earth brought forth sprouting growth
God saw the light
God called the dry land "earth"
God saw that it was good
God called the light "Day"
God called the dome "heavens"
God saw that it was good.
There was setting, there was dawning: one day
There was setting, there was dawning: second day.
There was setting, there was dawning: third day
God speaks, creates through speaking, names, evaluates, seals each day with setting sun and dawning day and continues the pattern.
Inexorably, painstakingly, a grid of order is imposed on the wild waste and seething chaos that preceded the first act of creation. God created to impose order on the "tohu vavohu" on the unformed void, the wild waste.
When I am confronted with the destructive and frightening effects of randomness: severe illness, hurricanes and sunamis and earthquakes . . . I sense that somehow that premordial chaotic wildness and void seething under the order of God's creation has somehow found a gap in the interstices of the grid and has spurted its venomous chaos into our lives.
We depend on the orderliness of God's creation to move through the world with any confidence. We orient ourselves through the predictable progressions of morning, noon and night, of recurring seasons. Indeed, we end our day with a blessing, praising God the creator for the comforting reassurance of this order: "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your rule shall embrace us forever . . ."
For all the uncertainty in our lives, this week's Torah reading comes to reassure us of the eternal presence of God, our Rock in the face of the randomness of life.
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Yes, I do. I love Torah.
If you know me at all, or if you peruse my writings over the years in this blog, you know I am not a Torah-thumping fundamentalist. But I do love Torah.
That makes Simhat Torah one of my favorite holidays.
So, why do I love Torah so much?
Here's my big 5 countdown:
5: Genesis/Breishit 9:16-17 -- "And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I [God] will see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I've established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." Torah teaches us that every human being stands before God on equal footing . . . no human soul is holier than any other or is created any differently than any other. All living creatures are treasured as creations of God.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
"You are [nitzavim] today, all of you, before Adonay your God"
[D'varim / Deuteronomy 29:9]
This phrase is the beginning of the first verse of this week's parashah/Torah portion. Moses is addressing the people one last time: they are about to enter the Land with Joshua as their leader, Moses knows he will die before that happens. These words introduce a renewal of the covenant originally made at Sinai (about 39 years before this moment) and Moses is setting the stage, emphasizing the significance of the presence of the people before God.
The verb is a telling one . . . for it has consequences for us today: נִצָּבִים / nitzavim. A simple translation would be "standing." You are standing today, all of you, before Adonay your God." That would work. But a lot would be lost in this translation. Moses could have easily said: you are עוֹמדִים / omdim, you are standing.
Nitzavim implies steadfastness, not-going-anywhere-ness, stability . . . Moses telling the Israelites that they are "nitzavim" is a statement that implies eternity, "nitzavim" means that we, two thousand years later, are just as "nitzavim", just as steadfast in relation to God as were our ancestors so long ago.
Our participation in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services during these Days of Awe constitutes our confirmation that yes, we are indeed, nitzavim. We are as eternally a part of the covenant as is God. Two thousand years later, we are no less a source of frustration and joy and disappointment and delight than were the generations of our ancestors in the wilderness who stood at Sinai, who rebelled, who gathered declared "we will do, we will obey," and who complained, who drank from Miriam's well and who built the Golden Calf.
The same Hebrew root that forms the basis of the word נִצָּבִים / nitzavim also forms the basis of the word מָצֵבָה / matzeivah. A matzeivah is a monument, the term used in modern Hebrew for a cemetery monument. The connection is clear, of course: the cemetery monument is as permanent an object as we can create. Through stone and engraving we attempt to make a steadfast, unmoving statement of love and loss and respect.
Our very presence, as we are נִצָּבִים / nitzavim is our statement as a living monument: unlike the cold stone, we are constantly renewing, bringing life and joy to our meetings with God . . . challenges as well. A stone monument can't pose too many challenges, either.
We are nitzavim before Adonay our God and our participation in services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make it clear that we are committed in our "not-going-anywhere-ness." Indeed, we ourselves can declare God:
אנחנו נצבים היום כולנו לפניך . . . . anachnu nitzavim hayom kulanu l'faneicha . . . we are all steadfast, not going anywhere, today, all of us, before You . . .
I just got returned from three weeks in Israel. Israel is where I spend quality time with my kids and their significant others, with friends who have been part of my life since my 20 years living in Israel, and it is where I re-charge my spiritual batteries.
It is often the case that my annual summer visit to Israel coincides with the observance of Tisha b'Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans in turn.
Traditional sources put some of the responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves, for our ancestors were guilty of the flawed behavior "sinat hinam" / senseless hatred. It seems that even two thousand years ago, people lashed out and condemned each other in the name of self-righteousness. Jew condemned Jew. Non-Jew condemned Jew. Jew condemned non-Jew. You get the idea...
Actually, it's not hard for you to "get the idea" because these scenarios are so familiar today among the polarized and polarizing religious communities that plague every Abrahamic faith tradition. Jews have religious fanatics. Christians have religious fanatics. Muslims have religious fanatics.
Intolerance in the name of God is such an oxymoron....
It seems that no matter which side of the Atlantic I find myself on, the toxicity of religious self-righteousness is there to be dealt with. I have often commented on the irony that the only country in the world in which a marriage I conduct is not recognized is "my own" country, Israel. Earlier this year, a nine year old girl from a religious family was spat upon my ultra-Orthodox fanatics because she was "dressed immodestly." ....Really?
In Israel I was brought close to tears by the horrific murder of innocent, peace-loving Sikhs in their own house of worship and then came home to learn of the vandalism suffered by our friends in the mosque in North Smithfield.
There are a lot of things of which we have too much in this world, like pettiness and selfishness and self-righteousness, and hunger, and homelessness. And there are a lot of things of which we have too little in this world, like theological humility.
How dare anyone limit the capacity of God to respond to sincere expressions of faith? How dare anyone claim that they know the will of God better than any other human being? Even Moses, the human who was most intimate with God, is described as "anav m'od", as very humble. Indeed, I would posit that the closer one is to God, the further one is along the path of one's spiritual journey, the more humble one would feel . . . for how could we feel anything but humble if we are truly in awe of God?