Dvar Torah Nitzavim – Three Stances During the Days of Awe

We are standing on the precipice of a New Year, 5777.

The Torah portion introduces the moment of decision is called Nitzaviim. This term might be translated as “standing at attention.” Every year on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah we are “at attention.”

We are reminded that we are entering these days as a collectivity, a community. We are a community in covenant with each other and collectively with God (Deut. 29: 11 and 13). Being part of a community is a challenge. The community is made up of each individual but during this holiday we are joined as a community in covenant. Five different terms and two different occupations as well as “those who are not here with us this day.” (Deut 29:14) — the future generations of the Jewish people.

Rosh HaShanah around the world marks the re-opening of the community to a call for solidarity and a recognition of our mutual dependence on each other.  That mutual dependence invites us to be more than useful to each other. It invites us to transcend the every day to see ourselves as a holy community covenanted with God. The texts takes pains to  describe a society of Jews integrated in its commitment to each other and inclusive of all its parts that is rooted in a belief in the Divine presence as part of a Covenant.

How do we express our covenant with God? There are many ways in which our actions as a people and as individuals bespeak our devotion to the covenant.

My hope is that in the coming year we will fulfill that sense of mutuality in our relationship with each other and with God.

On Rosh HaShanah We Stand With Abraham

Our second stance is with incredible devotion of Father Abraham to fulfill God’s wishes. Abraham is called to be a knight of faith. I am every year very troubled by the story of the binding of Isaac.

I can only marvel and feel awed and amazed at Abraham’s courage and faith. In my life time, I have known only one Abraham-like figure. It is the rare individual that can achieve Abraham’s devotion.

On Yom Kippur We Are With Jonah 

On Yom Kippur we are with Jonah. I know him much better. He is familiar because like many of us he is “under water.” As a child I was entertained by the story of the big fish and about a God whose powers extended to all corners of the earth. Jonah is not a knight of faith like Father Abraham. Abraham arises early in the morning to fulfill his understanding of what God has asked him to do. My friend Yonah — true to his name which mean dove — flees in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Mr. Dove is spewed onto dry land after three days and given a second chance.

God does not say when Dr. Dove hits the beach: “You are forgiven. You can go home. I’ll find another prophet, maybe Elijah is willing to come out of retirement.”  Jonah is not dismissed. God gives him another chance. This is at the center of the book for me. God is offering Jonah deep forgiveness, forgiveness with renewed trust.

We all want a second chance. We’d like everybody we have wronged to give us another opportunity, be are we willing to give others a second chance? That is a challenge to us to carry into the coming year!

Historically, Jonah is being sent to the Ninevites who are associated with the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.) The parallel is sending David Ben Gurion to Germany in 1945 to seek the welfare of the Germans!

This second chance demands not only a wariness but also a risk.

Finally, humor, maybe a little self-deprecation or even humility in life and in the book of Jonah are an element —  to furthering our move to forgiveness. Yes, the book imagines Nineveh being three day walking distance across and even the regret of the animals as well as the king of Nineveh.

May we find the courage to commit to the covenanted community of our people; may we now the courage of being devoted to Abrahamic faith, and the grace of second chance Jonah.

Best wishes for the coming New Year!


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