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Parashat Nitzavim

September 25, 2008

By Steve Altarescu

At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moses asks each one of the Jewish people to enter into the covenant with God. He tells them that Judaism is not just for the knowledgeable ones or the priestly classes but for each person including “the woodchopper to the water drawer.” (Deuteronomy 29:10) The oration offered is not only to those who were standing with Moses when he spoke but . . .” to those who are not here with us today.” (Deut. 29:14) Rashi says this refers to generations in the future, as every Jew living at that time was already mentioned in a prior verse.

This is a very fitting scenario for a few days before Rosh Hashanah when we will be gathered as congregations and each of us will be asked to turn back and follow what is right and good. Each person will have his or her own individual experience amidst a larger group experience. I think this parashah points out the importance of each of us paying attention to our own way of relating to Rosh Hashanah. A large group experience, with all the pageantry and music, can be both beautiful and overwhelming. It is all too easy to experience the day aesthetically but not find much that is personally relevant in the service.

Our parashah predicts that people will not follow God’s commandments and that we will be banished from the land of Israel, dispersed around the world and then, at some future time, “He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:3) After we are gathered together we are told, “Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deut. 30:6)

Some people ask: Why does God want our love? Does God need our love? Isn’t it more important to be reminded to love each other? What does it mean to love God with our heart and soul? What is the Torah referring to when it tells us to love God with our heart and soul “so we will live”?

When we love another person we appreciate their attributes and what they mean to us. We contemplate all they have given us and feel passionate about them and want to sing their praises. This applies to God, as well. Our tradition has a lot to say about this idea of loving God and has given us tools to learn how to do so. The blessings we say each morning start by thanking God for having restored us to life. We acknowledge the miracle of our bodies that function so precisely and allow us to exist. The rabbis have taught us we should say 100 blessings a day, blessings that acknowledge that all we have, including the food we eat, the wonders of the world and the people around us, are all a gift to us. Gratitude is one aspect of loving and growing our love for One who gives so much to us.

King David’s psalms teach us how to offer passionate praise as part of our love for God. In Psalm 148, which is part of our daily service, our praise is joined together with the praise of all the earth including sea creatures, fire and hail, snow, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild and tamed beasts, creeping things and birds and all people, old and young. In Psalm 150 we learn we can praise with all of our being and with great passion using harps, horns, timbrels, dance and every breath we take.

I think the concept of loving God equates our gratitude-for and appreciation-of our being alive to our having the opportunity to experience all that life has to offer us.

The blessings and prayers of our tradition are tools that help open our hearts and souls to love the Source of all that exists. Through our prayers, our tradition asks us to contemplate and consider each gift we have been given, to be in touch with how awesome the world is and to discover what our place is in this world.

The vision of Judaism is that through appreciation of all that we have been given, we will be moved to lead a life of meaning and purpose. The words “love God with your heart and soul so you may live” come alive for us every moment we pay attention to the beauty of the world around us and the potential in our relationships.

We are further told in this parashah that this teaching is not across the sea or in the heavens but in our hearts. We gather together on Rosh Hashanah with our families and communities and follow familiar rituals and ceremonies. We have the opportunity to find in the prayers words that touch our hearts and souls.

I hope the coming holidays open all of us to experience appreciation and love for all that we have been given and move us to lives of meaning and purpose.


Steve Altarescu is a rabbinical student at AJR.