September 14, 2012: Atem Nitzavim

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem…, “you yourselves stand here this day before Adonai your God…” (Deuteronomy 29:9) Who is standing, and where? The context of this week’s Torah portion indicates the specific group of Israelites standing before Moses on the plains of Moab, about to cross over to the Promised Land. However, the line concludes with an expansive expression of near universal inclusion: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer.” No one is to be left out.

The merism, “from the woodchopper to the water drawer,” is particularly intriguing. In what way do the woodchopper and the water drawer represent two polar opposites who stand in for everyone in between? According to my favorite interpretation, the woodchopper is the patriarch Abraham, who prepared the wood for the altar on which he bound his son Isaac. And the water drawer? He is none other than the prophet Elijah, who drew water for the altar on Mount Carmel when confronting the pagan priests of Baal. Abraham, the father of our people, was the first Jew; and Elijah will be the last, for he is destined to return on the great and glorious day of Adonai to herald the coming of the Mashiach, (Malachi 3:23) when, once again, he will “draw the waters from the fountains of salvation.” (Isaiah 2:3) Between the two of them, Abraham and Elijah encompass the full sweep of Jewish history, including all generations, and including all of us. The covenant is to extend forever among the people in all directions, both horizontally in space and vertically in time.

The addition of the word kulchem, “you yourselves stand here this day,” suggests an additional dimension. The directive is addressed not only to the entire nation but to each and every Israelite, emphasizing that “each person is responsible both as an individual and as part of the collective whole.” ( What would it mean to stand before God as a whole and complete individual, baring the polar opposites of our soul, the extremes of our behavior, and everything in between? It wold entail bringing to God all of our selves—our joy, our piety, and our certainties, but also, our grief, our failures, and our confusion. It would mean registering all the ways we have been kind, helpful, and loving, but also all the ways that we have been cruel, hurtful, and angry. The Rabbinic sage Degel Machaneh Efraim notes that hidden within the word atem, “you stand here today…,” is the anagram for emet, truth, “Truth stands here this day…” The very letters that constitute the word emet, aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, mem, in the exact middle of the alphabet, and taf, the last letter of the alphabet, represent the totality of our being that we are enjoined to present to God.

However, if we are to be truthful before God, we must first be truthful to ourselves.

I hurt someone. People hurt each other, and the older I get, the more the occasions accumulate when I have hurt another. What’s the big deal about saying “I’m sorry?” What do I have to lose by begging forgiveness, really? Pride is an overrated virtue. Was Abraham proud when he split wood for the altar? Was Elijah proud when he drew water for the altar? Encouraged by the humility of father Abraham and prophet Elijah, surely I can offer my own pride on the altar of reconciliation. As I get older, I’m beginning to learn: I’d rather be at peace than be right. I’d rather be blamed than blame. The poet Rumi says it best: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/ there is a field. I'll meet you there./ When the soul lies down in that grass,/ the world is too full to talk about./ Ideas, language, even the phrase each other/doesn't make any sense.” (The Essential Rumi, translated Coleman Barks, page 36)

Lastly, before I leave this week’s verse, I would like to focus on one more word: hayom, “you yourselves stand here today…” A Chasidic master asked his disciples: “What is the most significant moment in all Jewish history?” One student raised his hand: “the crossing of the Red Sea.” Another replied: “the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.” A third answered: “the return to the Land of Israel.” “No,” said the teacher, “the most important moment in all Jewish history is right now. This very moment.” To which I would add: “each of us is the most important Jew—not Abraham, not Elijah, but atem kulchem, each one of you, each one of us.” The directive atem nitzavim may embrace generations throughout space and time, but it applies to only one reality: here and now.

On Rosh Hashanah, we stand before God. Let us bring before God all parts of ourselves; let us stand before God in Truth. According to the mystics, on Rosh Hashanah, the divine King emerges from His royal palace and goes into the field to meet His subjects. Let us meet Him there, in the field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, and lie down in the grass, lay bare our souls, expose our joys and our griefs, express our anger and our compassion, seek forgiveness, and find serenity.