By Rabbi Robert S. Leib
The two consecutive parshahs, Nitzavim and Vayelech, are m’chubar, often connected, as they are this year.
We learn so much from just these two words — themselves!
Atem nitzavim hayom, “You [plural] stand this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9). A form of the verb nitzav is used several times back in Shemot, the Book of Exodus, to refer both to the people and to Moses as they prepare and present themselves for God’s revelation.
The verb nitzav, however, implies something very different than simply amod, a more common, regular verb, which also means to stand. Rather, nitzav suggests a deliberate act of will; a conscious, conspicuous physical and spiritual statement akin to hineini! “Here I am, God, fully and wholeheartedly prepared to respond to your call!”
At the very beginning of this Shabbat’s double parshah, we are reminded that the entire people stood to attention as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, eager to meet the demands of the brit, the covenant.
At this precious and precarious moment in our Jewish year, with Rosh Hashanah now less than one week away, are our Jewish lives predicated on that scriptural mantra? How do we nitzav — how do we stand ready, willing and able to heed the word of God? Is it through liturgical prayer or, even, political action? Might it be through the study of Torah and rabbinic text? Through synagogue affiliation and/or Jewish communal agencies? Perhaps through music or meditation?
On this final Shabbat of 5777, we nitzavim, we stand as an entire people, one nation, preparing to reaffirm our covenantal relationship with God and to one another.
Thus, while others simply stand around idly without purpose or intent, we use this sacred time to take a stand — resolutely, boldly, decisively on those religious precepts, ethical principles and ideological cornerstones that have always helped define our destiny.
For very many of us, it is hard, very hard to nitzav, to stand up and allow ourselves to be in the very presence of God. Too many of us are distracted by extraneous, material demands of one kind or another. We fidget, we look around, we shift back and forth, we feel uncomfortable. It requires such a strong and courageous act of will to overcome this human propensity.
If we accomplish nothing else in these upcoming yamim noraim, these Days of Awe, than learning Nitzavim, to stand up and thus listen to the beating of our own hearts and to the still, small voice of God — then dayeinu! Our challenge is to find the strength and the wisdom to both stand still and to stand up in a world that moves ever faster.
Now that’s all good and well, for after Nitzavim comes Vayelech.
The second of our two parshahs teaches an invaluable lesson: Only after we have all learned to “stand up” can we vayelech, a singular construction of each of us going forth.
According to biblical tradition, Deuteronomy 31 informs us of Moses going out among his people, going from tribe to tribe, from tent to tent to console and prepare them for a future without him. On the very day that he was to prepare for death, Moses went out, once again, to teach and to touch the people with his reassuring presence.
This is my humble suggestion to us all as we prepare to usher in a New Year: May we all know when, as a community, to nitzavim, to stand up. And, in addition, may each of us know, on an individual basis, when to vayelech, to go forth. That’s our challenge as we stand now at the cusp of 5778. Each of us can only go forth if we have first learned to stand with, up and alongside one another.
May we all merit the deep, spiritual satisfaction found in the immutable bonds of faith and fellowship and may we learn to love, honor and respect one another — no matter what our differences — more earnestly, more resolutely, more intensely.
With a New Year almost upon us, may we exhibit the courage and the confidence to stand up for what we believe in and then step forward into the bright and blessed radiance of a new day, a new beginning for us all.
Shabbat shalom and, in advance, Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Robert S. Leib is the spiritual leader of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. He chairs the rabbinic committee of the Old York Road Kehillah and is a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, which is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.