Still standing | Nitzavim

As Deuteronomy winds down and we prepare for the New Year, 5783 the sacred pages of Torah Moses remind us that we are standing, still standing, before Adonai our God. This is no small accomplishment, to still be on our feet after all we have endured.

What a year we have had! The past several years have upended our lives in ways that we could never have imagined. Six weeks of projected pandemic lockdowns in March 2020 have led to years of upheaval, dislocation, and desert wandering. The end of the pandemic, the Promised Land is ever over the horizon. Not quite there. Almost. Getting there. Nope, keep moving. Another twist. Another turn.

And so it goes.

In the shadow of COVID, millions of people have died. And just about everyone alive today knows someone who knows someone who has grieved the loss of someone dear. Many have had extended bouts of ill health. And all of us have lost months and years of life as we cancelled plans, rescheduled activities, tentatively made our way a few miles forward only to turn back. We are tired. Wandering through this desert has been exhausting.

But Moses, in the twilight moments of his own life, encourages his people, “Atem nitzavim! You are standing. Yes, you are! You are standing and moving forward, and your life’s goals are still in front of you, and you are going to get there. You are standing! You may have been down. You may have felt yourself out of the game. But today, my dear people, today you are standing. As you emerge from these days of isolation, these desert days, look around folks. Look at your people, your officers and your magistrates, your children and your families and those who serve your needs and even those tag alongs who have joined you on the journey. They are all in the same boat with you. They are all standing firm on our people’s journey to Eretz Yisrael. You are not alone.”

But there is even more to Moses’ encouragement. He says we are not simply marching to the Land of Israel. We are making this journey in order to enter into the brit, the covenant with God—to live in such a way that we will be God’s people forevermore as God swore to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Someone in the crowd shouts out. “Hold on one minute, Moses. We stood at Sinai. We made our covenant there, you remember?” Someone else interrupts, “God already took us as God’s people. I remember hearing that God promised our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that God will remember us. What’s the big deal?”

But Moses tells his people that the brit, this unique covenant is only a promise. It can only be as strong as you are good, as firm as you commit yourself to follow in God’s ways. Every year we come together to reaffirm, to rededicate ourselves to God and to each other.

And finally, Moses takes it one step further. This brit is not with you alone, but also with those who are not here with us this day.

As the New Year 5783 dawns, Jews everywhere reaffirm the brit that our ancestors made in the desert, knocking on the doors of Eretz Yisrael. We pledge our commitment on behalf of the people yet to be born, the generations of Jews to come who will read these words and be inspired.

When the Israelites left Egypt in great haste, they carried Joseph’s bones with them to his Holy Land resting place. Joseph, the emblem of better times, was not forgotten even in the midst of the Israelite’s suffering in the land of Egypt. Today, we carry with us into the New Year the hopes and dreams of the generations of Jews who had come before us. They may not be physically standing with us this day. But all these Jews, some long gone and some laid to rest with recent tears, are accompanying us on our journey. We feel their presence in the great and eternal migration of Jews through space and time–past, present and future.

Moses knows that his hours are numbered. He gazes upon the beautiful assembly of Jews before him and he knows that they are each in good standing with each other and with God, standing tall on their way to Eretz Yisrael and reaffirming their eternal covenant. He knows that he will soon be among those who will be carried forth in loving memory and devotion. Like Joseph before him, he will not be forgotten.

One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZicharon, our day of memory. We remember the years past and those who are not with us today. We anticipate the births to come and the lives and generations to come that will come into the world and carry us forward on our people’s journey. And still standing, we carry both our past and our future into this sacred moment of memory and hope.

May this New Year find you standing. Stand up. Atem nitzavim! You are standing! Be a blessing.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller | Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Alabama, USA


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).