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.
This week's Torah portion, Nitzavim, has so much significance that it is also read on Yom Kippur morning, when the greatest representation of the Jewish community is in attendance. In this parashah, Moses, at 120 years of age, continues his farewell to the people. He addresses the entire community of Israel who stand as one, regardless of their social stature, to hear him convey God's covenant. This covenant is made not only with those who stand there at that moment but also with the past and future generations of Jews. Can you imagine the power and drama of that moment? On a small scale, we reenact that moment on Yom Kippur when we hear the same words recited in our synagogues.
The following midrash appears in Hammer on the Rock: A Midrash Reader, edited by Nahum Glatzer, p. 42:
When Israel stood to receive the Torah, the Holy One, Blessed Be God, said to them, "I am giving you My Torah. Bring Me good guarantors that you will guard it." First the people said, "Our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are our guarantors." This was not acceptable. Next they said, "Our prophets are our guarantors." These, too, were unacceptable. But when the people pledged, "Our children are our guarantors," the Holy One, Blessed Be God, accepted them immediately: "For their sake, I give the Torah to you." God was only willing to give the Children of Israel the Torah and all that it contained when we were willing to personally accept the responsibility of receiving it.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, we learn that the Torah is "not too baffling for us, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens,…neither is it beyond the sea…. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and and in your heart, to observe it." The Torah and its message are accessible to us as a people. By studying the Torah as a community, we keep our community alive. Our ancestors were offered choices in Nitzavim — to choose life and prosperity or to choose death and adversity. (Deuteronomy 30:15) The biblical choice of fulfilling God's commandments comes with the guarantee that in keeping them, the Israelites will live long lives in the Promised Land.
Our present choices are not so simple, and we know that there are no guarantees in life. If Moses were to come today and ask us to gather as a community to hear God's message, would we even be there? Our biblical ancestors did not have to compete with sports, Friday night school dances, birthday and sleep-over parties, and all of the cultural events available to us in a pluralistic society that conflict with our living Jewish lives. Can we be counted on as a community to stand as one to support Israel, keep Judaism alive, and continue the traditions of our ancestors? Our Torah is accessible to us, but how many of us know what it contains? As the guarantors of Judaism, are we succeeding? How would we do on a show titled Who Wants to Be a Jewishly Aware Millionaire? Would we be the "weakest link"?
We read about the tragedies that have befallen our Israeli brethren, and we know that following God's commandments does not guarantee us the security that was promised to us in biblical days. Yet we are still connected to Israel and we remain part of an age-old tradition that offers us values, a way of life, a heritage, and a peoplehood. When we stand together this New Year on the evening of Kol Nidre, may we think about the choices we can make to insure the future of the Torah and the Jewish people. May the choices we make lead to God's blessings.
Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,381;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234