Next Monday night begins Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. It is referred to, both in liturgy and in the Talmud, as “hayom harat olam” — the day the world was conceived. Rosh Hashanah inaugurates the Days of Awe, which culminate in the holy and awe-filled Yom Kippur. At this time of year, we are strongly encouraged to take stock, make amends, repent for misdeeds and focus on changing ourselves for the better. Perhaps the most vivid and helpful tool that our Rabbis have provided us that we must consider and picture ourselves standing at attention before the King of the Universe.
How can humans, mortal and flawed, come before the Divine King? How do we stand at attention rather than bow, scrape, and avoid eye contact? Nitzavim, this week’s Torah portion, which contains the famous section on teshuva, repentance, gives us tools and guidance.
The Torah portion begins with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem” (Deuteronomy 29:9) — You are standing at attention today, all of you.” Moses begins his final speech to the nation with a somber warning: If you purposely ignore the Torah, believing that you are immune from punishment, and you go back to the immoral, idolatrous ways of Egypt, then you will be punished harshly. The parashah seems to continue where last week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, left off. Ki Teitzei contains the second tochacha (rebuke): there are 54 verses replete with every kind of horror and trauma. The commentaries teach that what is written in Nitzavim is not only a warning, but also a prediction. Since the dawn of time, humans have battled with their hubris, and believe that they can outsmart or outmaneuver the Omniscient and Omnipotent One. Whether in the Torah or Greek tragedy, human arrogance is a pervasive theme, and human nature has not changed significantly over the millennia.
We come by our hubris naturally; we are, after all, created “b’tzelem Elokim,” in the image of God. Humans have been granted a degree of cognitive flexibility and creativity that seems unparalleled. We have a degree of consciousness, which, while not completely definable, is demonstrably unique. Humans are able to self-reflect, to think abstractedly about things they cannot see and may not even exist; we possess a concept of morality. Furthermore, we were granted souls — that piece of the Divine that was breathed into us. God and humans are often compared and connected: we are commanded to emulate Him, and His glory can only truly be appreciated through human proclamation. Moreover, the Children of Israel are referred to as a “kingdom of priests”(Exodus 19:6); not only are we human, but we are those humans who can and should live as close to God as possible.
Korach claimed that he wanted to be closer to God. In Numbers 16, he challenged Moses’ authority and Aaron’s priesthood by declaring “the whole congregation is holy!” (Numbers 16:3). It is difficult to know what Korach’s real intention was; the only proof we have is God’s reaction to his power grab — death. It is interesting to note that the same Hebrew verb — nitzav — from this week’s parasha is also found in the Korach narrative (16:23): “And they exited (their tents) standing at attention…” Korach and his followers stood at attention out of the exact kind of arrogance that Moses describes in Deuteronomy 29; they sought to mock Moses, to challenge God, and to witness what they saw as Aaron and Moses’ undoing. Their stance was one of true arrogance — they ultimately cared only for themselves and the status they sought; they did not care about the broader ramifications for themselves, their families, and for the whole people of Israel. The ground literally opened beneath their feet, and they fell as far down as they had strived to rise above. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) deems Korach and his group as the paradigm for a selfish, self-serving argument.
In stark contrast, Miriam also stood at attention: “And she stood at attention…to know what would become of him (Exodus 2:4). Miriam put her own life on the line to honor her mother and protect her baby brother as much as she could. At the age of 6, she had the courage and the presence of mind, as well as the love and commitment, to save her brother. This is a different type of confidence: the one born from knowing that we are here to serve God and serve humanity. God created us in His image and we have incredible powers — which need to be harnessed to serve one another through kindness, integrity, justice, selflessness and giving. When we emulate God in ways that are merciful and moral, we are worthy of the tzelem Elokim in which we were created. We are able to stand at attention before God because we are His creations and we have strived to live up to that honor and responsibility.
On the eve of his death, Moses says to his people: “You are standing at attention today, all of you.” He then goes on to list exactly who the “all of you” are — leaders and elders, men, women, children, even woodchoppers and water-carriers. Perhaps this is Moses’ message: when we all stand at attention, before one another and before God, when we all respect and value what each individual contributes to a society, when each of us recognizes that every single human is created in the image of God as well as the awareness that God is the King of the Universe, then we can progress to removing what is impure from our hearts and souls. Then return to our best selves and to our Creator, standing both humbly and proudly, at attention.
May the year ahead be a blessed one for all of us. May it be a year of good health, stability, kindness, growth and peace.
Shana tova u’metukah!