Atem nitzavim hayom, "You are standing this day…." (Deuteronomy 29:9) In this week's parashah, Nitzavim, all Israel stands as a sign of respect, just as we do during the Amidah, the worship service's central prayer. But there is another reason why we, like the ancient Israelites, might stand at significant moments. Perhaps there is truly something different that happens emotionally and sociologically when we stand as opposed to when we sit. In the 1950s, Harry Golden, the editor of The Carolina Israelite, noted an interesting fact about integration. In his editorial with the then politically correct title of "The Standing Negro Plan," Golden observed that Southerners were already integrated when they were on their feet: People stood in line together to board the bus, to receive polio shots, and to check out at the supermarket. The problem was not how to integrate standing people but seated ones. So Golden proposed that schools be integrated by removing the seats. Hence, if every child stood, then who could object to integration?
Golden touched upon something important: We're willing to stand with people we dislike, but we won't sit with them. It is impossible to believe that after forty years of wandering together in the desert, all the Israelites were friends. And precisely because Moses knew that when we stand, our emotions of dislike for others do not tend to get in the way and we can concentrate on our common humanity, he stood the people before God.
As the Ten Days of Penitence approach, let us think about the fact that we, too, have made our share of enemies and that we, too, find some people not to our liking. Nevertheless, we shall stand before our God united as a people, and spiritually — just because we are standing — we'll disregard our differences and draw closer to the promise of shalom.
In addition, Moses knew that a standing congregation appears larger than a seated one. He understood that a larger assembly creates a greater impression and that standing together generates a sense of sharing something greater than ourselves. When four thousand Jews rise to honor the Torah at a UAHC biennial, as will be the case in Boston this December, the sheer power of numbers will create a unique and awesome experience for each participating individual. It takes a core number of people in any worship space to combine their energy, warmth, and yearning to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that's why on the High Holy Days so many rabbis invite the congregation to rise as the service begins. As we stand, our number seems to swell before our eyes, and the spiritual possibilities of the Great Days grow ever more impressive. Moses also bade the people to rise because when we stand, we attain our full physical height, thus symbolically encouraging us to achieve our full spiritual stature.
The words Da lifnei mi atah omed, "Know before whom you stand," appear above many arks. How would you feel about "Know before whom you sit"? There is no majesty, no inspiration, in that exhortation. In contrast, when we are on our feet, we are ready to act, to move or turn in any direction, willing to follow, able to lead. When Isaiah speaks about Israel's redemption, he urges: "Rise, shine, for your light is come." (Isaiah 60:1) Isaiah's exhortation to stand is a call to us to attain our full human potential, to meet God as a beacon of hope, and to stand up for all that reflects those hopes.
On this, the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, we prepare to stand as one congregation beside those whom we love as well as those whom we do not, ready to lift the power of the moment with our very presence, building the great minyan that marks the Days of Awe. May we resolve now to rise to our full human and spiritual height.