Feb 27, 2016

D'var Torah: Nitzavim

(Better late than never!)

In this week’s parsha, Nitzavim, which translates into “you are standing,” Moses continues his final address to the Israelites. As his life concludes, the 120 year-old profoundly tells all who have assembled that they are to follow the rules set forth by the covenant and, should they stray, Israel would face severe consequences. Moses also addresses the practicality of Torah by saying that the mitzvah commanded that day is not out of reach of the people. Though, if they did stumble, God would not forsake them if they returned to His teachings. Moses concludes by putting before the Israelites the choices of life and death–a blessing and curse–and implores them to choose life.

This Erev Shabbat falls on a day that will forever be etched in the minds of Americans –of people from all over the globe. Nine eleven. Fourteen years ago, most of us in this room watched with horror as the twin towers were struck and then crumbled to the ground. We watched, as an outside force came into our midst and destroyed a symbol of commerce, of trade, of the American Dream, of a people who value freedom and free-will. It was a modern-day slaughter not unlike the kinds our ancestors faced in the desert. Not unlike the kinds Moses recounts in his final address to the Israelites.

But just as the first word of this week’s parsha prompts us to remember, “Nitzavim": you are standing.

You are standing.

You are standing not just because of dumb luck, because you happened to be blocks, miles, or continents away from the towers on 9/11. But because it was God’s plan for you to stand here today this Shabbat remembering those who fell that day. And to think about the approaching New Year and what God’s plan may be for you.

So stand firmly, and think deeply.

Moses’ concluding speech to the Israelites is filled with warnings of temptations and pitfalls that lie ahead for the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. During the 40 years in the wilderness, he had seen them fall prey to lapses in faith, disobedience, and outright rebellion. At this point, a dying man, he literally puts his faith in their faith. He stresses the importance of the unity of Israel and does not hold back on the repercussions that will befall the people should they choose to worship other gods. In essence, he warns them to “never forget.”

The stakes are high; Moses knows the people are going to have free-will in the new land. And that brings us back to that pivotal passage I mentioned earlier in Nitzavim where Moses tells the people to “choose life.”

Life, in this ancient perspective was a life with God: bringing Torah, Jewish values, Jewish customs, laws and commandments to the Land. It was the blessing of being part of a people who entered the covenant and now stand poised to enter Promised Land. After exile and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, to choose otherwise was–in the eyes of God and Moses–death: a curse.

But what does that mean today? We are sitting here in temple, so we ostensibly have chosen Torah, etc. And, as Reconstructionists, we are all Jews by choice. So, should we consider ourselves blessed and call it a day?


The exact choices the Israelites faced were quite different from the ones we face day to day, but the over-arching themes are very much the same. At the core, they were facing a decision: to continue a tradition–one that was only a generation old at this point–or forge their own way. They were being asked to accept a way of being and acting without knowing what the future had in store. This is a tall order, indeed. But I think what Moses was trying to say was that by choosing God, studying the law and keeping the commandments, they would have the tools to make it in the new land no matter what adversity or temptation they faced.

In the context of 9/11 those tools were, and continue to be quite useful. That pivotal day ushered in a whole new world for many Americans. Fourteen years later we stand, like the Israelites, with the memory of slaughter still fresh in our minds and the uncertainty of what’s to come staring us in the eyes.

There is another similarity: the unspeakable tragedy we witnessed that day has not hardened our hearts. It would have been tempting to give in to fear, hatred, racism, and despair as a result of the attacks. Many have, and many continue to do so. But to do so is to cower.

And you are standing.

Because– just like our ancestors– you have faith. No. We have faith; we have our Jewish values. We have Torah. And we have our own wisdom, failures, and successes to guide us. Let’s “never forget” that.

Buildings crumble. Even the tallest and soundest of structures has its limits. We know this now. But we are not bricks and mortar; we are the embodiment of those who stood at the banks of the Promised Land. United in propose, united in spirit.

And tonight, united, we are standing.