In Riverdale NY, it seems like the whole world is celebrating this season. First, the weather has been a sunny, pleasant fall; not humid anymore and not yet freezing. Some of the famous trees are starting to change; there is a river (who knew…) and beautiful woods to walk near it. It’s easy to find round challahs and pomegranates and cards. On the night of Slichot (special pre-Rosh Hashana prayer night) people were walking in the streets way past midnight back and forth between different shuls. The same could be seen on the holiday, as it is not uncommon to “shul-hop” and check out different places with so much creativity in exploring Jewish expressions.
Saturday night right before Rosh Hashana I moved to my new place: a little one bedroom apartment pretty close to my school. For the first time in decades, there are neighbors down the hallway, and – Shabbat cooking smells all around. Between me and Ikea, we managed to build some things so there is a table and some chairs, while waiting for the “stuff” to travel cross-country. There are big windows and lots of light. In the spirit of new beginnings, the empty make space for wondering: What shall the year ahead be filled with?
Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, offers a very short Torah reading (off-set by the rabbi’s traditionally extra long talk…). In fact, according to Rabbi Se’adia Ga’on (882-942) it’s not even its own Torah portion but simply the second part Nitzavim (which this year, was read last week), to be separated out when needed (like this year-).
Looking at them like this, I could not help but notice the swing between the two. Nitzav means to stand erect, almost at attention. As mentioned earlier, the word is used for the pillars in the tabernacle. During the British Mandate the Hebrew term for High Commissioner was the “Natziv”, from the same root. The Or Hachayim (1696-1743) says that by nitzav we really mean one’s calling or one’s appointment (as in assignment) in the world. To hear that, it’s as if one has to stop, stand and pay full attention.
What’s even more interesting, is that the counterpart of Nitzavim, the “standing” Torah portion, is Vayelech, “and he went” or alternatively, the walking Torah portion. This might remind us of Ki Tetze and Ki Tavo – when you go out and when you come in, which also go hand in hand.
Possibly my favorite aspect of Jewish teaching is that path of seeking balance while holding on to two conflicting ideas. Are we standing or going? Leaving or entering? Which way is it? The answer is and must be – Yes. There are times to go out and times to come back; there are times to stand in attention, and times to walk and fulfill that attention. That tension is the core of life. Anytime we seek the easy route of “it’s always this” or that, we miss out, largely because it is not about definitive solutions. It’s not about arrival, but about the journey. It’s not about the period; it’s about the question marks. It’s not about the silence, but the deep conversation that led to it. We’re constantly holding on to both ends of the rope. If we let go of one of them, we lose the other one too.
This Shabbat, known as Shabbat Shuva speaks of return, or repentance. What does it mean? maybe to be back who we are; to find the balance we strive for.
Our tradition tells us about these Torah portions (Nitzavim-Vayelech) that, along with the two last ones of this book, all four were said on Moses’ last day of his life. It is a farewell of a leader, and hard to not think of another contemporary farewell, that of Shimon Peres. A lot has been written lately and I have only one small anecdote. I had the great honor to hear Shimon Peres at the 2008 GA (Federation’s General Assembly) in Jerusalem, where he presented his beautiful vision for peace and prosperity in the Middle East. He also spoke of the following (paraphrasing from memory): “People always say,ask the young, but the young often don’t have time or perspective to look at life. Ask the young, of course, because of their energy and because they will have to live with whatever it is we decide, but do ask the elders; ask those who have seen it all, who can tell you about life, who have a solid vision, who have experience”… Interesting, Moses too, in his upcoming poem of Ha’azinu, will remind us of the same. We’ll wait to read more of that.
From HIR High Holidays:
These are the Days of Awe… awe is a wonderful thing. A little awe is great – in fact, it’s awe-some, but too much… can be aw-ful.