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Nitzavim 5783 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld 

01/26/2024 10:25:39 AM




When David Ben Gurion made his first state visit to the United States as prime minister of Israel he gave a speech about the power of Jewish memory. How many Americans, he asked, know what day the Mayflower set sail for North America? How many Americans know what food was eaten on the Mayflower? And yet, every Jewish child knows precisely what day our ancestors left Egypt on our way to Eretz Yisrael and every Jewish child knows what they ate when they left Egypt. 

I assume Ben Gurion deployed this rhetorical comparison effectively, but it was a somewhat disingenuous comment. The fact that every Jewish child knows when our ancestors left Egypt and what we ate when we left Egypt says more about the power of the Pesach rituals to transmit knowledge from generation to generation than it does about any broader point about Jewish memory. There are, in fact, quite a few dates mentioned in the Torah on which important events occurred and I suspect few, if any, of you know when those events happened. Do you remember the date that Aharon HaKohen died? Do you remember when the mishkan was erected? Do you remember the date of Noah’s flood? When did it begin? When did it end?

Jewish tradition has conspired to imprint certain dates into our collective memories while other events are remembered even as the anniversaries of the dates on which they occurred go mostly unnoticed and mostly unmentioned. This is true for all of us as well. Those of you who are married, do you remember your anniversary? Do you remember the day you moved to Washington, or the date that you joined the shul? What distinguishes the dates that you reinforce and remember from the very important life milestones that you have forgotten. There are days that we remember that have no associated Hallmark cards but which are nonetheless seared into our souls because they changed the trajectory of our lives.

The Torah also describes events of great importance without sharing any date whatsoever. The most famous example is revelation at Sinai. We do commemorate revelation on the 6th of Sivan, the holiday of Shavuot, but the Torah never links Shavuot to revelation and it was  detective work by the Talmudic rabbis to uncover the surprising fact that the anniversary of the most significant day in Jewish history coincides with the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot became the holiday of revelation - zman matan torateinu - when we discovered, through careful reading of the first half of Sefer Shmot, that the Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan. 

It cannot be a coincidence that a careful reading of the Torah leads us to conclude that revelation took place on the holiday of Shavuot. But why would the Torah keep this fact hidden?

In Parashat Nitzavim a second covenant is forged, the covenant of Arvot Moav, made with the Israelites just prior to Moshe’s death and their entry into Eretz Yisrael. Here, the Torah not only omits an explicit date, but draws our attention to the date that was omitted through the word הַיּוֹם֙ “today” which appears again and again in our parasha without telling us what day is “today.”

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙

You stand הַיּוֹם֙ today all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you הַיּוֹם֙ today, with its sanctions; to the end that God may establish you הַיּוֹם֙ today as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and as God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The word הַיּוֹם֙ appears almost twenty times in the parasha and each time it appears with no explicit date. What is so important about the day on which the covenant of Moav was forged and why is that date kept hidden? 

The answer to both obscured dates is that revelation at Sinai is less important than our acceptance of the Torah here and now and the covenant of Moav, with its emphasis on shared destiny and loyalty to the Torah as the common denominator of Jewish life, entails commitments that have to be made הַיּוֹם֙ - today. 

Each time we hear הַיּוֹם֙ we can think about *this day*, the 23rd of Elul and how it can be *the day* הַיּוֹם֙ on which we commit ourselves to new and better priorities.

This day can be the day הַיּוֹם֙ when we invite others to share our yom tov table.

This day can be the day הַיּוֹם֙ when we commit to reciting berakhot before and after we eat.

This day can be the day הַיּוֹם֙ when we come back to shul at Mincha time so that our day of rest is turned into a day of prayer and community.

This day can be the day הַיּוֹם֙ when we take the time to bench, carefully with our children at Shabbat lunch.

This day can be the day הַיּוֹם֙ when we sit down with our families and talk about ways to be more generous and open hearted with the charitable causes that sustain our community and our neighborhood. 

But none of these examples of ways in which we can make this day meaningful can turn this day into *the day* if we don’t reinforce and repeat that good behavior. We know when our ancestors left Egypt because remembering the exodus from Egypt is written into every chapter of our liturgy and into a myriad of rituals of remembrance. We know that we stood at Sinai on the sixth of Sivan because we celebrate the gift of Torah every year with all-night study sessions and prayers for “zman matan torateinu.” 

In just a few hours we have the opportunity of standing together, just as our parasha describes אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם you all are standing here today before God, as we begin the annual recitation of Selichot. 

Those of us who can be here in shul tonight will say these words, but all of us can mediate upon the beautiful poetry of the opening night of Selichot:

בְּמוֹצָאֵי מְנוּחָה,

קִדַּמְנוּךָ תְּחִלָּה.

הַט אָזְנְךָ מִמָּרוֹם,

יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלָּה.

לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל־הָרִנָּה וְאֶל־הַתְּפִלָּה:

After the departure of the Sabbath,

we first approach You [in prayer,]

incline Your ear from on high,

You Who are enthroned upon praises,

[and] hear our cry and our prayer!

Throughout the Selichot and into the Yamim Ha’Nora’im, we will ask God to evaluate our lives with mercy and with generosity as we in turn reach out to one another in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness. None of us can have confidence that our merits are sufficient to stand before God in judgment. All of us have the chance today, הַיּוֹם֙ to earn some additional merit as we commit to more Torah and mitzvot and to bring more kindness and compassion to our families and community. But a commitment only becomes an inflection point if it marks some shift, however slight, that in time, bends the curve of the narrative arc of our lives. Even a very small change in mindsight today can lead us to a very different place six or twelve months from now.

Many of my friends have been asking me recently, “how are things going with the new shul?” My reply is always, “I’m enjoying myself but you really should ask the congregation how things are going!” The day I moved to DC was a momentous event for my family, but not as important as what we’ve all done together over the past nine weeks and certainly not as important as what we could accomplish together over the next nine weeks and the years that follow. 

Similarly, a few weeks from now, people will ask you, “how were your holidays this year?” And the only correct response will be, “it’s too soon to tell.” It will be many months before we know if the commitments we make in Elul and Tishrei are reinforced and repeated in ways that change our lives and change the world.

Nechama Leibowitz, the great 20th century Torah scholar and educator, said that when she was a child they taught her in school that it was extra important to be careful with one’s behavior  between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But her father pointed out that it was more important to be careful about one’s behavior between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. 

The final final piyut, the final liturgical poem, that we sing on Rosh Hashanah is HaYom, a celebration of all that we hope for on Rosh Hashanah. But the piyut comes at the very  end of Mussaf, because we will determine the significance of that day, just as we determine the significance of every day, by our behavior once that day has ended. 

Selichot tonight, and this entire approaching holiday season, can be haYom but we won’t know for sure until next year. 


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784