By Rabbi Sigal Brier
In both this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, and the High Holidays, we stand before God. In both, all the people are to stand, not just their representatives or leaders. No one is exempt from the duty, and no one is deprived of the birthright of having a personal relationship with the mystery, the spiritual realm, God.
How do you stand before God? How does it feel to stand before God? What is the dominant feeling? Do you stand trembling, waiting to be judged? Do you stand humbly, to admit your wrongs and ask to be forgiven? Do you bow your head with gratefulness? Or do you stand confidently, basking in God’s love? Or maybe you are too tired and dejected to stand.
We are nearing the end of 5781 and another reading cycle of the Torah. In a few days, 5782 will begin. Nitzavim, which means “all of you are standing,” is a short portion near the end of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book in the Torah. All the people are called to stand and listen to a summary of the long Torah journey, and to hear about the promises of the past and the covenant that will continue.
How do you stand before God? The prevalent view is that we stand before God to be judged, especially during the High Holy Days. It’s common to tremble and fear God’s judgment during the Days of Awe. We feel small and separated from God, a power greater than us. The image of a God who sits on the throne of judgment is conjured up in our imagination as we read the liturgy. That God is threatening and fierce.
Even though there are other elements and aspects to God, the emphasis on judgment is exaggerated in our minds. Understandably so, because we have a negativity bias in the brain. This bias helps us focus on what is wrong and we survive by scanning the world for danger and threats.
But our tendencies to emphasize judgment and be afraid obscure other important aspects of life, and of God. During the Days of Awe, the important aspects of rahamim (mercy) and ahavah (love) are sometimes hidden or forgotten.
During the Days of Awe and throughout the year we stand before God not just to listen and be judged, but to also ask for help. We ask for mercy, compassion and kindness because we know we are loved. The high drama of the holidays may distract us and scare us, but let’s read the verses of Nitzavim to remind us of God’s love and strengthen our connection to a God who loves and helps us through it all. We will see that at the center of our relationship with God is and always will be love and mercy.
In Deuteronomy 30:4, it says: “Even if your outcasts are at the end of the world, from there God will gather you, from there God will fetch you.” God’s love is unconditional, and God’s role is to help and support us when we are lost. The mystery, the nurturing merciful power we cannot comprehend, comes to meet us when we are lost. We stand in awe and amazement, and feel relieved when we are gathered and guided back to life.
And internally, within our hearts, we learn that God seeks to help us as well. In Deuteronomy 30:6 it says: “God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love God with all of your being, that you may live well.”
God intimately dwells within us. The relationship we have with God is intimate and personal. It’s not beyond reach, not in the heavens, neither is it beyond the sea. In Deuteronomy 30:13-14 it says: “Neither beyond the sea that you should say ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and tell it to us, so we can engage with it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to live it.”
I am reminded of the popular song “Lean on Me,” in which the late singer-songwriter Bill Withers wrote, “Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.” I hope you hear this line as a reminder to lean a little more.
In this new Jewish year, may we stand together and lean into the mystery; may we lean on God, lean on spiritual practice, lean on tradition, lean on each other and lean into community. May we strengthen our relationship with the mystery and each other.
L’shanah Tova. I wish you a good new year with abundant health and joy.
Rabbi Sigal Brier is the rabbi at Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown and the creator of Mendful – Live Connected, which mends the world with conversation, meditation, mendful zones and art. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.