As the new Year Approaches: Stationed and Ready to Go?

The season known colloquially as, ‘the High Holy Days’ has arrived. This evening at 9 PM I will lead a study session on ‘The conditions for Forgiveness’, which will be followed by the unique S’lichot service, with its evocative rehearsal of the themes of confession and forgiveness. ‘Forgiveness’ – S’lichot – that is the goal of the journey we will embark on this evening; a journey towards atonement.

So, the season of t’shuvah, of ‘return’ and ‘repentance’, has arrived – but have we arrived? The month of Ellul, which will end when the sunsets on Wednesday evening, was designated by the rabbis as a time of preparation for the yamim nora’im – the ‘awed days’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur. The Reform High Holy Day machzor – festival prayer book – published in 1985, includes a ‘Calendar of Repentance’ for the month of Ellul, with a relevant reading for each day. It is hard for most of us to take a journey – any journey – into the unknown, without a map to guide us. And so, in the absence of a daily reminder, a guide to navigate the days of Ellul, I imagine that most of us will experience the arrival of S’lichot as a sudden jolt. But then, most Jews don’t actually attend on S’lichot, so, in reality, it’s not until the sun sets on the old year, that the realisation dawns that the new one is beginning.

The parashah for this week is Nitzavim-Va-yeilech – a double portion. The Torah is divided into 54 portions to allow for the fact that a leap year is 13 months long, that is a year consisting of 56 weeks, and that sometimes a festival will fall on Shabbat, in which case, the Shabbat portion, superseded by the festival portion, is postponed to the following week. In short 52-week years, certain portions are put together – hence: Nitzavim-Va-yeilech. It’s a very significant double-bill in Jewish teaching terms – but before I go on to explore the compelling conjunction of the two portions, I need to point out that today, for us here, at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, the portion is actually, simply, Nitzavim – and explain why we have departed from the standard lectionary of Torah readings.

In recent years, this congregation has held an annual commemoration of our Czech scroll on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of ‘Return’ between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. We began to do this when we learnt that the community of Frydek Mistek that once owned our scroll was deported by the Nazis in 1942 precisely during this ten day period between the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Checking the Torah reading lectionary for 1942, we also discovered that the portion read the Shabbat prior to the deportations, on the last occasion that the community of Frydek-Mistek gathered together, was Nitzavim-Va-yeilech.

In view of this, Avodat Ha-Lev, the rites and practices committee, decided that even in those years when Nitzavim-Va-yeilech is read before Rosh Ha-Shanah – as is the case today – we would always read from it when commemorating the anniversary of the deportations on Shabbat Shuvah. Nevertheless, to avoid simply repeating the same reading, we decided to divide the double portion between this week and next week. So, today we are reading from Nitzavim, and next week we are reading Va-yeilech. And to make sure that we don’t miss out on next week’s designated portion, Ha-azinu, after reading Va-yeilech, we will also read the concluding section of Ha-azinu.

Sounds complicated doesn’t it? The point is that as a result of our connection with Frydek-Mistek, our congregation also has a particular double-connection with the double portion, Nitzavim-Va-yeilech – a connection further enhanced by the fact that the Liberal Judaism lectionary, also designates two passages from Nitzavim for reading on Yom Kippur morning.

Today, rather than go into the detail of the content of this double portion, I want to explore with you the implications of the conjunction of the two words which constitute its double-name: Nitzavim-Va-yeilech. You may be aware that, both, the books of the Torah and the individual Torah portions, derive their names from the first significant word. And so, Nitzavim begins at Deuteronomy 29, verse 9:

Atem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem.

You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal One your God.

Meanwhile,Va-yeilech begins at Deuteronomy 31, verse 1:

Va-yeilech Moshe, va-y’dabbeir et-ha-d’varim ha-eilleh el-kol-Yisrael.

Then Moses went, and spoke these words to all Israel.

Atem nitzavim – ‘You are standing’: literally, ‘you are stationed’. The Hebrew root for ‘standing’ is Ayin Mem Dalet. Here, the Hebrew root is Nun Tzadi Beit, which is always used in a passive and reflexive sense, so means, either, to ‘be stationed’, or, to ‘take one’s stand’. The use of this root, implies, not simply the physical state of standing up, but standing in readiness. We might picture a unit of soldiers standing to attention – but the particular use of the language here also implies everyone’s individual responsibility to stand themselves’ up, as well as a collective endeavour: Atem – ‘You’ – plural – nitzavim – are standing in readiness – kul’chem – ‘all of you’ – that is, each one of you. And so the passage goes on to list all the different groups within the community, who are standing to attention – including the children – ‘from those who chop wood to those who draw water ‘ (29:10).

So, each individual member of the community is stationed in readiness. Readiness for what? The passage goes on to say: L’ovr’cha bivrit Adonai, Elohecha – the literal translation is: ‘In order to cross over into the covenant of the Eternal One, your God’ (:12b). In the context of the narrative, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the people are about to cross over the River Jordan into the land beyond. But before they can do this, they must first ‘cross over’ into the covenant with the Eternal One. So, they are standing in readiness to take a leap, psychologically and emotionally – as well as physically – into the unknown. For 40 years they have been putting one foot in front of the other; wandering from place to place. For 40 years they have been setting up the camp and taking it down, standing up, walking, and sitting down, as they followed their leaders, day after day. But todayha-yom – is utterly different:

Atem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem.

You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal one your God.

Today. After 40 years of wandering – ha-yom – ‘Today’: a transformational moment – and also a transitory moment. The Torah does not linger long in the present between past and future – which brings me to Va-yeilech:

Va-yeilech Moshe, va-y’dabbeir et-ha-d’varim ha-eilleh el-kol-Yisrael.

Then Moses went, and spoke these words to all Israel.

Va-yeilech Moshe – ‘Then Moses went.’ It doesn’t sound very dramatic. But the phrase takes on a deeper resonance, when we turn to another place in the Torah, where the identical phrase – in this case, concerning Abraham – denotes something much more momentous. We read in B’reishit, the book of Genesis, at chapter 12, in the portion, Lech-L’cha (12:4): Va-yeilech Avram – ‘Then Avram went’. So, the same words, but here, Va-yeilech signals the beginning of a journey that didn’t merely transform the life of Abraham and Sarah, it also generated a new future for the generations that came after them, who became a people – our people. We read (12:1; 4):

Now the Eternal said to Avram, ‘Lech-l’cha – Go for yourself out of your country and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land of I will show you…’ Then Avram went as the Eternal One had spoken to him.  

Va-yeilech Avram – ‘Then Avram went’. And so it was for the generation at the end of the wilderness wanderings. Having stationed themselves in readiness to cross over into the covenant with the Eternal One, and heard the words of the covenant imparted to them by Moses, they then proceeded to cross over into the land beyond Jordan and to go on a new journey.

And what about us? Nitzavim-Va-yeilech: On the one hand, the conjunction of the two portions is just a logistical, administrative issue; on the other hand, the conjunction is also a rallying cry: stand yourselves up and go! Not just the generation gathered on the eastern bank of the River Jordan, around 3,250 years ago: at this season of repentance and return we, too, are called to station ourselves in readiness for an immense journey. If we are prepared to examine our lives and change our ways, this particular journey will take us to atonement and a new beginning. We don’t have to cross a river into an unknown land, but today we are challenged to take the risk of breaching the defences we have built around ourselves, in order to explore the secluded terrain of our hearts and souls.

Nitzavim-Va-yeilech – to be stationed is to be ready to go – and to arrive anywhere, suggests a journey. All we need to do now, as the New Year beckons, is to acknowledge that we have arrived at this moment. Ha-yom. Today. May each one of us find the courage to respond to the call of this sacred season and begin to take our own steps towards renewal. And let us say: Amen.


Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

24th September 2011 – 25th Ellul 5771