By Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, and mother of H.M. Weisz (2020) and Emmett Weisz (2018)
It is no coincidence that Parashat Nitzavim always precedes the High Holidays as there are a number of ways in which this portion helps prepare us for the days ahead. Nitzavim [Hebrew for “ones standing”] is understood to have taken place on the day of Moses’ death, giving immediacy to the question: “Who will live and who will die?” Moses’s speech encourages us to imagine and reflect on our own “final lectures;” to review our lives and perhaps, last words.
We tend to think about sin and repentance in extremes, either by taking these issues too lightly, letting ourselves off the hook – or we scare ourselves into believing that change is impossible. Nitzavim, however, inoculates us against both extremes. Moses warns us of the desolation that will result from ignoring the Mitzvot [commandments]. Yet, he also encourages us to realize that we can turn things around. Teshuvah [repentance or “return”] is “not too wondrous, nor too far of a reach,” but accessible and part of each of us. You are equipped “in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”
Nitzavim directs us to two indispensable methods for turning back to God and to our best selves: 1) community and 2) choice. It’s especially tough to feel alienated at a time that is supposed to be suffused with the promise of repentance. The opening verses of Nitzavim assure us that the covenant and community are for everyone – women, men, kids, people of every economic background; strangers, leaders, and “regular Jews.” The list of who is included ends with “those who are here, and those who are not here” – you can’t get more inclusive than that! All are welcome in the community. All are included in the group enterprise of repentance and forgiveness. As we say on Kol Nidrei, “we declare it permissible to pray among those who have sinned.” Otherwise, shuls would be empty!
Finally, Nitzavim highlights that we have a choice. Conscious choice is the ultimate spiritual practice because it is the ultimate privilege of being human. The Parasha states: “This day, I call upon heaven and earth as witnesses that I have set before you life and death, blessing, and curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.” Many people look for a third, neutral option. Is stasis acceptable? This is a new year – it’s all about changing for the better. One way to choose is by first imagining that every choice either pushes you in the direction of vitality, creativity, and the Book of Life, or toward numbness, destruction, and the Book of Death.
I wish you a meaningful holiday, and a sweet New Year, full of wonderful choices for you and for your children.