Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah: Renewing Covenants

…the word nitzavim the core of the blessing given by G-d does not mean merely “standing.” It implies standing with power and strength, as reflected in the phrase: nitzav melech, “the deputy serving as king,” i.e., G-d’s blessing is that our stature will reflect the strength and confidence possessed by a king’s deputy.

This blessing enables us to proceed through each new year with unflinching power; no challenges will budge us from our commitment to the Torah and its mitzvos. On the contrary, we will “proceed from strength to strength” in our endeavor to spread G-dly light throughout the world.

What is the source of this strength? Immutable permanence is a Divine quality. As the prophet proclaims: (Malachi 3:6.) “I, G-d, have not changed,” and our Rabbis explain that one of the basic tenets of our faith is that the Creator is unchanging; (See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Vol. I, ch. 68, et al.) nothing in our world can effect a transition on His part. Nevertheless, G-d has also granted the potential for His unchanging firmness to be reflected in the conduct of mortal beings, for the soul which is granted to every person is “an actual part of G-d.” (Tanya, ch. 2) This inner G-dly core endows every individual with insurmountable resources of strength to continue his Divine service.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Standing Before G-d”
from the “In the Garden of Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah

In just a few days, every religious Jew on earth, including many three day a year Jews, will be standing before the God of their forefathers and participating in events that are thousands of years old, and in a modern response to a very ancient commandment. Christianity has nothing like it. Not even Easter comes close. And yet, it’s not something that God “does” to the Jewish people, but rather, Rosh Hashanah is a fully interactive and participatory event, must like what Rabbi Touger describes in this week’s Torah Portion, where the Children of Israel stand before God and consciously, fully, willingly, and interactively accept upon themselves the Covenant of Sinai and the resultant conditions of the Torah.

What a strange God we have who wants to interact and participate with His people in such Holy rites.

There is a great secret in the drama of Rosh Hashanah. It is the mystery of a Creator asking His creations to participate in the birth of their own world and of themselves. He asks the created beings to ask Him to create them.

The wonder of Rosh Hashanah is between Him as He is Above and Him as He is in within us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Mystery of Rosh Hashanah”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We ask to participate; we are expected to participate in the creation of our own world, of our own lives? How crazy is that? OK, how “mystic” is that?

But then again, how crazy is it to pray to an invisible, unknowable, all-powerful Supreme Being in His Heavens, and expect that He’ll even be willing to listen, let alone answer our humble and sometimes, not-so-humble requests?

For the entire month of Elul, the Jewish religious world has been doing a slow wind up to the High Holidays. Gradually at first, Jews have been praying, studying, repairing damaged relationships, treating people with just a little more respect. Then with more frequency, giving to charity, visiting a sick friend in the hospital, going to shul and davening with a minyan, joining a Talmud class. Finally, at a frenetic pace, making sure they have (if required) tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, preparing their homes, sending greeting cards, praying three times a day including the Bedtime Shema, and on and on and…

It’s almost here. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Erev Shabbat, the Shabbat before the Holidays, is just a few short hours away. It’s here, it’s here, it’s here! “Am I ready?” many Jews ask themselves. “Is my soul ready?” Who is ever really ready for such and awesome encounter with God at such a critical time of year?

In all of this, Jews, and maybe a few Christians, can’t help but think of “covenant connection,” “promises,” and “blessings” …and “curses” maybe. It’s very exciting and exhilarating…and intimidating.

But in spite of God’s “bigness” and “vastness” and “infiniteness,” He wants, He demands a relationship with His people Israel and through them, with the rest of us. After all, that’s the point of a covenant. Rabbi Touger’s Torah commentary continues:

Our Torah reading continues, stating that the Jews are “standing today before G-d” for a purpose: “To be brought into a covenant with G-d.” (Deuteronomy 29:11.)

What is the intent of a covenant? (See Likkutei Torah, Devarim 44b.) When two people feel a powerful attraction to each other, but realize that with the passage of time, that attraction could wane, they establish a covenant. The covenant maintains their connection even at times when, on a conscious level, there might be reasons for distance and separation.

Each year, on Rosh HaShanah, the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is renewed. For on Rosh HaShanah, the essential G-dly core which every person possesses rises to the forefront of his consciousness. Thus the fundamental bond between G-d and mankind surfaces, and on this basis a covenant is renewed for the entire year to come, (See the essay entitled “At One with the King” (Timeless Patterns in Time, Vol. I, p. 3ff)) including the inevitable occasions when these feelings of oneness will not be experienced as powerfully.

We Christians don’t think of having a time when our covenant with God is renewed, since we consider coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ as a singular event in our lives. Jews, by comparison, are born into the covenants, and thus, even a completely non-religious Jew has no choice about being Jewish, even if they choose to disregard every single mitzvot. Then again, I suppose there’s a reason why some Jewish people are “three day a year Jews,” much like how some Christians only go to church on Easter. If you have an awareness of your relationship with God, even peripherally, He draws you back to Him at times like these.

We Christians don’t renew our covenant relationship with God annually, or at least we don’t think of our holidays as having that impact. On the other hand, as I’ve come to realize recently, our covenant relationship with God does not stand apart from the Jewish people. God made His covenants with Israel and through the Abrahamic and “New” Covenants, we among the nations are granted blessings. The blessings come from God, to the Jewish people, and from the Jewish people to us, by way of the Jewish Messiah King, so that no one has to perish but everyone can come to life eternal.

In our prayers, we say: (The conclusion of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer, Siddur Tehillat HaShem, p. 60.) “Bless us, our Father, all as one.” This implies that standing together as one generates a climate fit for blessing. (See Sefer HaSichos 5700, p. 157.)

May our standing before G-d “as one” on Rosh HaShanah lead to a year of blessing for all mankind, in material and spiritual matters, including the ultimate blessing, the coming of Mashiach.

May all mankind, every man, woman, and child, be blessed by God.

Good Shabbos and L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem; May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

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