By Rabbi Dan Lewin
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the upcoming themes of the day are unity and affirmation. This unity concerns awakening the sense that our destinies are interconnected; we are part of the Jewish people. Affirmation includes reconnecting to the core of life: It begins with One Creator, whose eternal moral code allows us to embrace a personal relationship that steers our purpose in this world.
This week’s parasha, Nitzavim, is invariably read each year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. And the content of the verses constitutes a preparation for the most important day. Subtly inserted within the words are messages about both unity and affirmation.
Unity and individuality
The Torah reading begins, “You are standing here today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d, from the leaders of your tribes….” Each word in this opening announcement is infused with significant instruction. The commentaries explain that “today,” more precisely “this day,” teaches that on the day of his death, Moses assembled Israel to “bring them into G-d’s covenant.”
So, in some way, this final stage in Israel’s long journey to the Promised Land signifies a subsequent and greater affirmation of the initial covenant accepted by the Jewish people at Sinai. The resounding messages within these lines, we are taught, constitute the bulk of our focus on Rosh Hashanah.
Before expounding the message of entering the covenant, the commentaries explain that the Hebrew words atem nitzavim, translated as “you are standing,” have a more specific meaning which comprises an attitude more than a physical presence — “to stand firm” emotionally. Furthermore, the ability to stand firm is dependent on all of you standing together.
In this latter phrase, there seems to be somewhat of a contradiction. The verse begins by speaking to Israel as a unified body — “you are standing…all of you” — without making any distinctions. Yet immediately afterward, it separately details the different classes of Jews, “Your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, even all the men of Israel…from the hewers of wood to the water drawers….”
Why specify groups when the phrase “all of you” already includes them all? In other words, if the emphasis here is on unity, why highlight the inequality, hierarchy and diversity? It did so to make a central point: On the one hand, a spirit of unity amongst Jews is essential, reminiscent of the words of our famous daily prayer sim shalom: “Bestow peace, goodness and blessing, life, graciousness, kindness and mercy, upon us and upon all Your people Israel. Bless us, our father, all of us as one.” The deeper meaning communicates that divine blessing descends only when we are united, as one.
At the same time, each person has a unique contribution to make to the collective whole — defining his or her personal individual mission. Both perspectives must be simultaneously absorbed and placed in the proper context. This requires some adjustment as our innate wiring and outlook entail ongoing tension between the two — peacefully merging our individual ambition with our role in the larger community.
When understood correctly, the ability to stand united does not imply overlooking individual differences, but rather underscores that each of us, from the apparent highest to the lowliest, has an important part to play and our own potential to fulfill. Indeed, while Judaism places great emphasis on the community, not just the individual, this involvement does not come at the expense of personal creativity and progress. On the flip side, an individual is only successful insofar as he or she contributes to their surroundings. The development of intelligence, love, discipline and sacrifice must serve a greater benefit.
One of the biggest challenges we face in our life journey is trying to “stand firm” spiritually while thrust in the mix of so many worldly demands and distractions — from earning a living to parenting and setting aside time for hobbies and ambitions. Without noticing, we can get carried to the side by waves of obligations only to suddenly discover that we are temporarily distant from the most essential part of ourselves. Each New Year in the Jewish calendar, with a new light and life infused in it, presents an opportunity to reconnect and reestablish focus.
To be sure, regardless of the individual, nobody has an easy load to carry. It’s only a question of whether most challenges and pains come from external circumstances or from struggles within. On a more global scale, it may be argued that the main obstacles in this generation to embracing Torah — achieving character refinement and spiritual attunement — stem from privilege, the increased quality of life and abundance of resources. In contrast, the challenge of previous generations came from physical hardships and scarcity. Each has its own strategies and merits when overcome — when, despite the struggles, one can stand firm and remain loyal to core Jewish values, to the soul’s mission.
The esoteric texts explain that when you lose a physical object, you retrace your steps until you find it. When you lose focus, energy and inspiration, you must establish fixed times to review the day (or year), tracing the steps to determine what essential qualities have been lost and where, through which actions, you lost them. This is the first stage of self-reflection that propels teshuvah, the vital renewal process during Elul to prepare for the Days of Awe. In this sense, standing firm entails digging within to find clarity and commitment. And the more we can get back to our true selves, the more we can give to others.
Returning to the covenant, Moses explains to the Jewish people that G-d is sealing his covenant not only with them “but also with those who are not here with us today.” (29:14) For the people hearing these words from Moses, it was a guarantee that future generations — their descendants — would also be the recipients of this eternal bond. For the people in future, these lines serve as a powerful message of responsibility.
Even today, this affirmation on Rosh Hashanah, resolving to study Torah and perform commandments, immediately unites us with Jews across the world. It also unites us with every generation of the Jewish people — past, present and future. In our personal resolve — standing firm — and pleas for a good, sweet year, we benefit from the sacrifices and lifework of those who came before us.
While we may be a small nation in numbers, when it comes to the Torah, the commandments or fulfilling our broader mission — to transform the world into G-d’s home — we stand together with the merits of all the generations of the Jewish people. Internalizing the messages planted in the verses this week, the sense of unity and affirmation sets the tone for our reflection and success during the big days ahead.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.