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Parshat Nitzavim/VaYelekh

September 8, 2006

By Bruce Alpert

A number of years ago, I was part of a synagogue committee that evaluated the then new, gender-neutral edition of the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer. The new siddur offered revised versions of several of the older book’s Kabbalat Shabbat services. One change ‘ having nothing to do with gender issues ‘ occured on the first page of the first service. Where the older version read ‘May God bless us with Shabbat joy, May God bless us with Shabbat holiness, May God bless us with Shabbat peace,’ the new version read ‘May we be blessed with Shabbat joy, May we be blessed with Shabbat peace, May we be blessed with Shabbat light.’

So focused was I on the siddur’s many other linguistic innovations that, at the time, I barely did more than note this change. Since then, however, I have come to think of this as one of most telling innovations the new prayerbook offered as it speaks to a hesitance to talk of God as actively involved in our lives. Such a hesitance, I fear, can be an impediment to one of our most basic needs ‘ to know God.

The need to know God ‘ at least on some level ‘ is a recurring theme in our parashyot this week. In Parashat Vayelech, we learn that Moses wrote down the Torah and commanded that it be read to the entire congregation of Israel, particularly so that the children ‘who do not know, will hear and learn to fear God.’ (Deut. 31:13) Earlier, in Parashat Nitzavim, Moses speaks of the destruction of the land that will follow when the Israelites prostrate themselves to gods ‘whom they did not know, and to whom they have not been apportioned.’ (Deut. 29:25) Both these verses speak to the need for the one true God to be a real presence in our lives. And one of the most powerful ways we can make that presence felt is by invoking God in our thoughts, and most especially in our speech.

This idea was brought home to me some time ago by my acquaintance with a wonderful Orthodox man. In response to the completely perfunctory question, ‘How have you been?’ I got the very sincere and very animated response ‘Baruch ha-Shem, I am well and my family is well!’

I was taken completely aback. Sure I had often heard people ‘thank God’ for their well-being, but most of the time that response was as reflexive as the question. Here, however, was a true desire to thank the Almighty for blessings bestowed. I was shocked. I was moved. And I was left to reflect on the times in my life when I knew I should ascribe my countless blessings to our compassionate, loving and generous God, but didn’t. Or to the times when I should have actively prayed ‘May God bless you,’ but instead passively wished ‘May you be blessed.’

How often do we feel embarassed by our faith; afraid that our sincerest thoughts will make us sound silly or simple? Yet I believe that those very thoughts not only are God’s due, they are the building blocks of our faith and our communities. When people hear someone they respect confess his or her indebtedness to the Almighty ‘ when they hear reasonable, thoughtful people speak sincerely of knowing God as a reality in their lives ‘ it is as though they too were being given permission to believe.

As we learn so eloquently this week, when Moses stood before the people of Israel for the last time, he brought them into a covenant ‘ a covenant that extended not only to those present, but to those who were not. We are among that latter group. And yet we are called upon to know God as though we too had experienced the depredations of Egypt; as though we too heard the thunder at Sinai; as though we too stood before Moses in his last hours as our teacher and leader. I believe that if we are to fulfill these obligations we must, as the text says, know God. And we must start by at least being able to invoke God’s name, both as the source of our blessings, and as our true judge.

On this final Shabbat of 5766, May the Holy One bless us with Shabbat joy, holiness and peace. And may God seal us for a good and sweet new year.