“Standing Firmly Before G-d and Man”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, Moses, on the final day of his life, gathers all the People of Israel together–from the lowliest laborer to the most important official, inviting all of them to pass into the Covenant of the Al-mighty, to establish the people as G-d’s People.

The powerful narrative begins in Deuteronomy 29:9, with Moses addressing the amassed audience: אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, You are standing today, all of you before the L-rd your G-d: the heads of your tribes, your eldest, your officers–all the men of Israel.

In addition to “all the men of Israel,” Moses makes a point of addressing his message to the rest of the nation as well, speaking even to the small children, the women, the converts who are in the midst of the camp of Israel, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water. He informs them that they are soon to pass into the Covenant of the L-rd their G-d, and through the oath that G-d will seal with them on this very day.

In Deuteronomy 29:12, Moses explains to the people the purpose of G-d’s oath:לְמַעַן הָקִים אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם וְהוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לֵא־לֹקִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב, In order to establish you today as a people to Him, and that He will be a G-d to you, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.

Rashi, citing the Midrash, says that after hearing the 98 ominous curses of the ,תּוֹכֵחָה Tochaycha, which are recorded in Deuteronomy 28, the people panicked, seeing their future as bleak and hopeless. Moses reassured the people that G-d will not abandon them. After all, they had sinned many times previously, and are all still standing there before G-d. The Tochaycha was never intended to be a threat of destruction. Rather, it was hoped that the Tochaycha and the Divine imprecations would bring people to repentance and cause them to refrain from further sin.

Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, in his collection of commentaries on the weekly parasha known as HaTorah V’ha’Olam, interprets this particular portion as conveying a powerful message of mutual responsibility that should resonate with all Jews, especially during these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Telushkin notes that the painful exile in Egypt lasted for 210 years. 110 of those years were years of actual enslavement that broke the people’s spirit, leaving them with a feeling of emptiness and worthlessness. Their suffering was so great, and their concern to find their next piece of bread and source of water in order to stay alive was so desperate, that they were unable to see the sufferings of others.

When the Al-mighty sent Moses to redeem the People of Israel and to free them from slavery, He told Moses, Exodus 9:13, הַשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וְהִתְיַצֵּב לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה. Using the same root of the Hebrew word הִתְיַצֵּב “hit’yaht’zayv,” meaning to stand erect, that was used in the opening verse of Nitzavim, G-d tells Moses to rise in the morning and to stand up before Pharaoh. Emphasizing that Moses was surely not alone, G-d tells Moses to stand straight like a free person, and not to bend or bow slavishly before Pharaoh, and certainly not to plead. Moses must tell Pharaoh, forthrightly, that the L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews said, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me!” Declare to the Egyptian ruler that, “We are no longer your slaves. The People of Israel are servants only to G-d!”

Later, when the people stood at the Red Sea and were chased to the very shores of the sea by the Egyptians who were closing in on them, the people again despaired. G-d told the people, in Exodus 14:13, אַל תִּירָאוּ, הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת השׁם, Do not be afraid, הִתְיַצְּבוּ “Hit’yahtz’voo,” stand up straight, and see the salvation of G-d.

Once again, at Mount Sinai, the root of the Hebrew verb to stand erect is used. When Moses goes out from the camp toward G-d, to the people who are at Mount Sinai, the Midrash, commenting on Exodus 19:17, states, וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ “Va’yit’yatz’oo,” He found the people already standing erect on their own like a bride and groom, and Mount Sinai suspended over them like a bridal canopy. The people, who were now a united people, would no longer be alone. Now they would be a real nation, each one in a position to look after their neighbor and bear responsibility for their fellows.

The concept of עֲרֵבוּת, “Ah’ray’voot,” being responsible for one another, requires that every Jew reach out to strengthen one another and spread the word of Torah. A G-d-fearing Jew is expected to share his reverence for the Al-mighty with others. A Jew, whom G-d has graced with wealth, must use that wealth for the benefit of others, to help the poor of the nation and the Torah scholars. It is not enough for individuals alone to make this effort. Every Jew is expected to mobilize others to become involved in performing acts of kindness and chessed.

In the opening verse of this week’s parasha, when Moses told the people אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם, You are standing today upright, all of you before G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officers…from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water–he is actually warning those who are in positions of wealth, strength and influence that they cannot stand by indifferently on the sidelines allowing others to do the work. Even the poor have to help those who are worse off than themselves.

Rabbi Telushkin nostalgically recalls the time that he was a student in the Yeshiva of Slutsk, in White Russia, a school that depended on the generosity of the local Jewish populace to sustain them. Even the poor local woodchoppers would make an effort to donate wood, in order to provide heat for the Yeshiva. The local drawers of water would similarly draw water three times a day to give the students to drink, because they too wanted to share in the great mitzvah. Not a single person tried to avoid bearing the burden of responsibility.

Especially during this time of the year, during the special High Holy Days, we must all be deeply cognizant and aware that our welfare is totally dependent on G-d. This, of course, does not relieve us of the personal responsibility to help others who are in need.

Today, G-d continues to urge His people to pass through His Covenant, to once again establish us as a people to Him. We are no longer a group of diverse and disparate individuals, but a united nation, the nation of G-d, which assumes its responsibility and fulfills its duties in order to merit the full measure of blessings from the Al-mighty.


May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rosh Hashana 5776 is observed this year on Sunday evening, September 13th, and all day Monday, September 14th and Tuesday, September 15th, 2015.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, September 16th, 2015 from dawn until nightfall.