Don’t get me wrong: I love the upcoming Holy Days, but I can’t shake the feeling of shear fear when thinking about Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana is like going through an airport metal detector with a Swiss army pocketknife, a can of pepper spray, a small handgun and a suitcase full of 5oz shampoo bottles, hoping security won’t catch you because of your beautiful smile… You know there is no chance – and no reason anyone should let you do that, and yet, you pray – to the same One who made these rules, mind you – to spare you just this time, because you really, really – really – want to get on the flight.
How can we do that?
Let’s picture the airport conversation: “Step aside, ma’am. You have some illegal luggage here”. “Eh, officer, it’s just some small stuff, don’t make such a fuss!” “Are you planning to use any of it, ma’am?” “Probably. I mean, I’ve used it before but not that much; at least, I think it was not that much; and besides, I couldn’t help it. It happens! Would you let get to my flight already?!”
I hear the sirens wailing in the distance.
There is no way to do it anywhere in “real” life and yet, we do it every year. Maybe because our security guard isn’t just a security guard; she also happens to be our parent, and suddenly the picture changes completely. We’re no longer a high-risk criminal with repeated offenses, traveling with home-made weapons and a crazy plot, but a little child, who sheepishly sneaks up to his mother’s apron with a chocolate-smear smile on his blushed face and chocolate smeared fingers behind his back, who when asked sternly, what happened here, shrugs and shakes his head with ‘I don’t know’ and really believes it.
The duality of our complex relationship with G-d is best expressed in the High Holy Days liturgy’s Avinu Malkenu, but it repeats itself constantly in Jewish life (in fact, I’ve now decided, based on my private, not-yet-founded research that the reason we see so many Jews especially in the field of behavioral economics is that we’re taught to think “like this” all through our lives. More of that at another time -), and the last Torah reading before the New Year is no exception.
It’s a double Torah portion this week, Nitzavim-Vayelech. It recalls the covenant and affirms that our ability to fulfill it (or at least enough of it to not disappear); it reminds us that doing right is not beyond us. In its second part, it tells us about Moses’ last day, about his teachings as a role model in action and words; it asks us to do right again, and warns us from the dangers of “too much”: too much fat, too much anything; how we become haughty, thinking we can do it all, taking G-d’s gifts for granted, and causing our own downfall.
It’s a great reading with many powerful verses and messages but I like their names best: Nitzavim (nitzav in the singular) means to stand, tall and erect. It is used for the pillars in the Temple; for Abraham serving his guests (as in standing above them, ready to serve). In Modern Hebrew nowadays it’s used for answering the call and going to enlist in the army; and the same root is used for the matzav, the situation, when we – sadly – think there is no change. It denotes stability along with preparedness.
Then there is Veyelch, from the root h.l.ch, to go. The first scene begins with Moses “going to” the People. It’s one of my very favorite scenes in the Tanach: 120 year old Moses, on his last day, going to see the people. Normally, we would assume, people come to him. If not because he cant walk, then just to be respectful. But not Moses. He gets up and goes to his beloved people.
On the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, we usually read them together. We affirm that we’re about both stability and motion – preferably at the same time. Which way is prayer supposed to be, keva or kavana? Right. Are we about doing or learning? Yes. On and on.
Picking a side and asking the either-or question expecting it to be answered with one or the other, is like wanting to surf only down the high waves, ski down the slopes, but without carrying the surf board, or sled, back. We can – and should, why not – find tricks, physical and spiritual, to make the uphill process easier, but we have to know we can’t eliminate just one aspect. It is life.
Nitzavim-Vayelech is one such reminder, so that on Rosh Hashana we don’t ask to sneak through a security check-point. We ask to be seen for who we really are, and G-d knows, there is no machine that can do that.
Shabbat Shalom & Shana Tova.