Welcoming the Holiday

Rabbi’s Message – Battery Park 5781

The Torah portion Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. The opening two verses read:  

You are standing today, all of you, before God, your God, - your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers; all the men of Israel. Your children, your women and he who has entered into the midst of your camps from your woodcutter, to your water drawer.

I would like to focus this Rosh Hashana message on two Hebrew words. The first is Nitzavim translated as standing. In Hebrew School, I was taught the Hebrew word “O-made” (עומד) for stand. I also learned that “O-Made” is the root of the word of one of our most familiar prayers, the Amidah which we read while standing. So, is there difference in the Standing in the word Nitzavim from “O-Made” if both words are translated as Stand?

First, the word Nitzavim has the connotation of standing tall, erect, like a pillar. For example, when Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, she became a “natziv melach”. Another example of the word נציב is the Hebrew word (התיצב) “Heat-ya-tzave” which means “reporting” or “presenting yourself”. This is the word that is used in the Israeli army when a soldier has to report for duty or for the morning roll call.

The 2nd Hebrew word of importance is the word “היום” (Hayom) – אתם נצבים היום. This word is repeated in the poem we sing on Rosh Hashana – היום תאמצנו (Hayom). We also use the word Hayom when we sound the shofar: היום הרת עולם – Today is the birthday of the world! So, what significance does the word היום (Hayom) have in the opening words of this Torah portion?

To best understand the significance of Hayom/היום, we need to go back to the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, where we read: “Moses and the Levite priests spoke to all Israel saying, “Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a nation to the Lord, your God”.

This verse, indeed, is strange. What is so special about this day? What was Moses referring to when he declared, “This day you have become a nation”? Moses wasn’t speaking about the day of the Exodus or the first Passover! So what happened on this day – היום - that transformed the people into a nation dedicated to God?

For an explanation, we have to look behind the scenes and read the commentary of the 11th century commentator, Rashi. Moses, Rashi says, was saying his farewells to the people just before his death and handed over the Torah to the tribe of Levi. This caused discontent among the people. Moses, the people said, weren’t we ALL there to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai? Doesn’t the Torah belong to us as much as it belongs to the Levites?

Now, Moses heard many complaints during the 40 years that the Israelites wandered through the desert. We know that even at one point, Moses was ready to “throw in the towel” and give up his leadership role. Now, however, the people were coming to Moses with a totally different complaint and this time, instead of being angry, he was thrilled and said, היום הזה נהיית לעם לה' אלכיך – This day you have become a nation” Rashi further explains, “Today I, Moses, understand that you really want to uphold God‘s covenant. I now understand that you want to be a link in the chain that passes down the Torah from one generation to the next.

Perhaps now we can understand the use of the word Nitzavim in the opening words of the Torah portion. The people of Israel were not simply “standing” before God. Rather, they were reporting, standing erect, like pillars, before God prepared to uphold his Covenant and to do His service.

As we approach the new year of 5781, may we stand this day, היום נצבים before God and may He may he inscribe us in the Book of Life, Happiness and Health. Shana Tova!

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