Posted by: Subway Conductor | September 11, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the first words of this week’s Torah portion should speak to us loud and clear. “You are standing, all of you, today, in the presence of the Lord Your G-d.” These words point to the attitude which we should have on Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. G-d judges our actions and decides our fate for the coming year. On Rosh Hashanah we should feel that we are standing in the presence of G-d.

These first few words of the parsha also make another important statement. The Torah could have said, “You are standing today in the presence of the Lord Your G-d.” Why did it add the expression “all of you”? This phrase is superfluous. The sentence would have made sense without it. But the Torah is emphasizing that all of us, the whole Jewish People are standing before G-d. Judaism as a religion connects us to the Jewish People, it links us to all other Jews. Almost all our prayers are worded in the first-person plural “we, our.” In the shemoneh esre we say every day three times a day, “Blessed are You Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers…” Even if we are davening alone we say these words. On Rosh Hashanah we will say, “Avinu malkeinu – Our father, our king.” And most strikingly, on Yom Kippur we will say “for the sin which we have sinned.” Even when we confess our sins we do so in the plural “we”. Why we? If some Jew sins, do I need to confess? The answer is yes. All Jews are responsible for one another. We know this to be true from our own experience. When a Jew gets into the newspapers because of some scandalous or embarrassing behavior, we call it a shanda. We also call it a “desecration of G-d’s name.” Jews are supposed to represent something lofty and when a Jew does something disgraceful, we all feel the disgrace. All Jews are connected to one another. We are affected by one another.

Natan Sharansky, one of the most famous Jews of our time, has a new book coming out. It is entitled “Never Alone.” The title of Sharansky’s book is getting to exactly the point that I am making here. Even when he was in a Soviet prison camp, he was not alone because he knew that the Jewish People were supporting him. He also knew that his actions were important for the Jewish People. And indeed, he became a model of hope and freedom for Jews all over the world. The idea is that we are never alone because we are part of a people that is interconnected, whose lives are bound up with one another.

There is another verse in this week’s Torah portion that I believe is pertinent to Rosh Hashanah. Moses tells the people, “This command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you, it is not far off. It is not in heaven….” Sometimes Jews think that Judaism is a very difficult and demanding religion. There are, after all, so many rules. But, Judaism is not a religion that makes impossible demands on us. Judaism is not meant to be the religion of a few pious individuals, but it is meant to guide the life of a whole community. It is intended for average people living normal lives. Asceticism has not been a significant aspect of Judaism. The idea that to live a religious life, one should remove oneself from society and devote oneself to a life of celibacy or poverty is foreign to the Jewish world view. There is a commandment to rejoice on our festivals. Eating and drinking are an essential part of Shabbat and holiday observance. There is a mitzvah to have children, “be fruitful and multiply.” And Judaism holds up working and making a living as an ideal, “Six days you shall work….” The patriarchs are portrayed as wealthy men who had large possessions.

The key to the Jewish understanding of life is that we are supposed to engage in all these activities of normal life, but within the boundaries set by the Torah. Yes, make a living. Make as much money as you want. But, make sure the business is kosher. There are mitzvahs that need to be born in mind when conducting business. Yes, engage in family life. But, there are mitzvahs in the Torah that set certain limitations in this area. Eat, drink, enjoy good things, as long as you stay within the bounds set forth in the Torah. Judaism holds up as the ideal living a normal life, but in a way that is enhanced by living in accordance with the Torah. Judaism sees a spiritual and moral dimension to all things. We are not asked to avoid physical pleasures, but to imbue them with holiness. We say a blessing before we eat because we understand that eating is a religious act.

On Rosh Hashanah we should choose to strengthen our commitment to Jewish life. This choice should be made keeping in mind that “the Torah is not in heaven” but is within our reach.

Good Shabbos!!


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