Promise to Past, Present and Future


Please don't confuse the two holidays — New Year's and Rosh Hashanah, that is. Were I to appropriate the classic song from the former, I would not be doing justice to the latter. It was Robert Burns who wrote (or popularized) the song "Auld Lang Syne," which means "in times gone by."

Yes, at this time of year we do try to take a personal and often detailed assessment of the year that's just ended and what we could have done better. But there is also a strong sense of our thinking about times "yet to be."

Even the very names of this Shabbat's double-header Torah reading — Nitzavim-Vayelech — speak volumes. The first means "to stand," the second, "to go." Yes, we often need to stop in order to reflect, yet we dare not be paralyzed or fearful to move.

We need to continue the journey toward a life of meaning. Atem nitzavim hayom, "we stand here today" — we have to be grounded here and now, but ultimately, vayeilekh … chazak veematz ki ata tavoh — "we have to continue to search and journey, with courage and strength."

There is also a gargantuan communal principle we need to discover (and then rediscover) as well. One of the giants of the previous generation, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, was considered to be one of the great talmudists and pedagogues of his era. One of his lectures took on legendary proportions. It seems that many of his students were absent that day, and the lecture hall was reduced to a group of several students sitting in the front row. They reported that the rabbi was especially scintillating that day. They also said that he was particularly loud.

One of the students mustered the courage to say, "Rebbe, we are only a handful of students today. You don't have to speak so loudly. We hear you just fine."

To which the rabbi responded: "Do you think that I am speaking just to you? I am speaking to you, your children and their children."

Now and Forever
Perhaps the boldest, most audacious, but central claim of our tradition is contained in a verse from this week's Torah reading. Moses, the original pedagogue and paradigmatic Jewish leader, is now 120 years old. It is the last day of his life. The people gather as he addresses them. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem … "You are all standing this day" … to pass into a covenant with God … in order to establish you today as a people to Him and that He be a God to you."

This next verse is the chutzpah claim of Judaism: "Not with you alone do I seal this covenant … but with whoever is here standing with us today … and whoever is not here with us today."

Moses, so to speak, was speaking not just to his students, this current generation. He was also speaking to the next and subsequent Jewish generations.

At its very core, this concept means that I am responsible for you, and you for me. But even more so, it means that we are both responsible for the generations that came before us, even as we are responsible to those that will follow.

I know of no other people who make such an audacious and wondrous claim. "All of Israel is responsible one to another" is not just a talmudic platitude; it contains our unique Jewish attitude, which is the secret of generational survival, or "thrival."

As we stand on the cusp of 5768, may we continue to live that covenant, accept the sacred burden of our responsibility, and have the courage to model a life that searches for meaning for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren — so that they can do the same for theirs.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


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