Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's a powerful image from the movie (and book) Master and Commander which hearkens to this week's Torah reading.  In a violent storm ready to blow away both ship and crew, Captain Jack Aubrey's instructions to all and sundry are to 'stand fast' (actually the seaman clutching the ship's wheel has the words 'hold fast' tattooed to his knuckles).  Those instructions seem to be a metaphor for a meaningful life, and are the first words of our parsha:  You are all standing fast this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).  The term nitzavim implies more than just standing up (Hebrew:  omed).  It denotes standing resolute like a monument (Hebrew:  matzeivah) in the face of adversity or challenge.  The literal concept here is standing firm in spite of the imminent departure of Moshe from the helm of the nation.   But every year we must read these inspiring instructions and try to deduce what message they hold for us so many millennia after that event.

            The expression 'this day' in the verse can mean any day.  The requirement to stand fast daily in spite of trial and tribulation is always a significant idea, and some other year I may actually run with that idea.  However, because of the annual proximity of this reading to Rosh Hashanah, most traditional commentaries suggest that this standing fast refers to our standing in the dock of justice on that Day of Judgment (alternate name for Rosh Hashanah:  Yom Hadin).   The question to be pondered is where do I get the temerity to stand fast before the Divine Judge?  Please, don't suggest that it comes from a clear conscious, because then I'd never be able to do it.  The verses seem to propose that our ability to stand there and take it (I feel like adding 'like a man', but some of the bravest people I know are women) comes from the fact that we're not alone.  Great courage can come from the power of unity.  The Holy Rebbe of Kuvrin (quoted by the Slonimer) said that on Rosh Hashanah we must proclaim God King over my entire being.  Normally parts of my being and body may act separately and at cross purposes, on this Day of Awe I must pull all of myself together in devotion to my Sovereign.  

            However, the more obvious interpretation of the unity is readily visible in the text itself.  I feel the courage and power to stand fast before the Awesome Ruler, because the entire Jewish nation is with me.  From the highest and mightiest to the meekest and humblest, we pull together to stand unified on this overwhelming occasion.  How do I receive and contribute to this sense of unity?

A friend and neighbor from Efrat Professor Aaron Demsky asks a devastating question in an article which appears on the Bar Ilan website.  He writes:  One might ask how this command affected the national consciousness? How many people actually heard the reading, and how many of them understood what was read? How many remembered the passages they heard once every seven years?  In short, professor Demsky wants to know what possible affect this assembly had on the assembled, and I might add, especially the unlettered and the babies.  He answers that this phenomenon had an historical significance in that it became the model for public Torah readings and contributed to the entire nation feeling a part of the heritage of congregation of Ya'akov (Deuteronomy 33:4).

However, I was inspired by an idea I saw on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon web site by Rav Baruch Gigi.  He never quite frames Professor Demsky's question, but addresses it nevertheless.  Rav Gigi suggests that the importance of the event was visceral.  Everyone of the nation standing there at one time, reminded the nation of standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and though not everyone understood what transpired, it demonstrated that the power of Torah can work beyond the intellectual level.  And a major portion of this internal feeling is that we're in this together.

This reminded me that our Sages deduced the principle of Kol Yisroel areivim zeh b'zeh (All Israel are responsible for one another) from this week's parsha, as well.  The source verse is:  the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah (29:28).  This concept is reinforced by the experience of the assembly.  There we are together with every stratum of society standing in the same place, standing in the same situation.  We are in this together.

This model is so important for us as we prepare for the High Holidays, the Days of Awe.  Generally speaking these are the largest gatherings of Jews that most of us attend each year.  Rav Gigi says that the assembly mitzvah reminds us that when we pray it should be for the benefit of the entire Jewish nation.  The assembly is meant to remove us from the attitude of focus on personal need and, through this participation in the grand ceremony, moves us toward thinking nationally, if not globally.

Life ain't easy!  It's not easy to carry on.  We all have burdens that could swamp us, and make life unbearable or miserable. Many of us would not be able to stand fast before the tempest, if we perceived ourselves as abandoned and bereft.  So, what do we do?  We look around and see that we're not alone.  Everyone is holding on for dear life against the winds and tides of daily strife.

Please, use the lesson of Nitzavim, standing fast within the assembly to infuse the High Holiday experience with comfort and strength of community to face the New Year with courage and hope.  With this sense of belonging derived from the assembly mitzvah, we'll never feel that we're walking alone, and we can turn the Days of Awe into awesome days.             

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