Getting Ready for the Holidays with Nitzavim

It is no coincidence that Parashat Nitzavim always precedes the High Holidays. This Torah portion prepares us for the days ahead. Nitzavim is understood to take place on the day of Moses’ death, giving an immediacy to the question: “Who will live and who will die?” Moses’ speech encourages us to imagine our own “final lectures” life reviews, and last words.

We tend to think about sin and repentance in extremes. We either take these issues too lightly, letting ourselves off the hook – or we scare ourselves and imagine that change is impossible. Nitzavim inoculates us against both extremes. Moses warns about the exile and desolation that will result from ignoring the mitzvot. Yet, he also encourages us to realize that we can turn things around. Teshuvah (repentance) is “not too wondrous, nor too far of a reach,” but accessible and part of you. 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 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 Return. The opening verses of Nitzavim reassure us that the covenant is for everyone – women, men, kids, people of every economic background, leaders and “regular folk.” The listing 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 state on Kol Nidei, “we declare it permissible to pray among those who have sinned.” Otherwise, the 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. Toward its conclusion, 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 is inclining you either toward vitality, aliveness, creation, creativity and the Book of Life or toward death, deadness, destruction, and the Book of Death.

May this coming Shabbat and this coming year usher in more wisdom, more inclusion, and the kinds of thoughtful choices that will impact us and future generations for the good!


About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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