Poor Nitzavim. It’s tough being the parasha just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Who pays attention to you? Just when you would think about something deep and profound to comment on it….BAM! you’re thinking about New Year’s instead. Yet there is a connection between this parasha and the whole High Holiday theme of life.
Moses says, “See I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity….I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would life – by loving your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God” (Deut. 30:15-20). (There’s a lot of God-language in here this week; you who are Doubting Deists, work with it as you will.)
Seriously, who wouldn’t choose life over death, blessings over curses? Seems like a pretty easy choice, but of course, there’s more to it. Those ……’s in the quote above skip over how one exactly chooses life and prosperity: love God, walk in God’s ways (as laid out in this here Torah), keep God’s commandments and rules, so God will bless you. That’s what works for Moses and frankly, the Torah in general.
It’s one thing to choose life, it’s another to know how to do that, exactly. So, perhaps we should read not just “choosing life”, but choosing what kind of life. It’s one thing to be up-and-breathing alive, and another to really be living a life that makes the world better, even if it’s only the people around you.
The whole Torah is a story about a people and their God – how they meet, fall in love, commit to each other, and figure out how to live together. God wants the people to set up a community in which all the laws that God sets out have one goal: live together in peace and respect, thereby bring honor to that God who set it up in the first place It’s not enough to be an individual who lives by peace and respect; everything in Torah focuses on community -being engaged in building a community based on peace and respect. It’s all of us together, walking in God’s ways, i.e, living our lives in the way that leads us to a world of peace and respect. (Note that it doesn’t mean we’re all in agreement, just that we respect each other and get along.)
So what’s the connection to the High Holidays? Around now, we talk of the image of being written into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and being sealed into the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. Literally, we want to live for another year. For the ten days in between the two Awesome Days, we are supposed to concentrate on making things right with the people around us, because only then can we turn to God for forgiveness, and get that “good” seal for another year of life. We have work to do, here on Earth, just like always. Because the work we do here is what impresses the heck out of God.
In Nitzavim, Moses is telling us that we choose the kind of life we lead. When he says, “choose life”, Moses means live the kind of life that leads to what we hope God will ultimately choose for us at Rosh Hashanah ––Life. The Torah portion is about the community, and Rosh Hashana is about the personal. When we read Nitzavim through the lens of Rosh Hashanah, we see the balance between the two: choose life for God, and so God will choose life for us
Thank you, dear readers, for another year of engagement with this endlessly fascinating text. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good, sweet year, one of health, prosperity and joy.