One of the most clever High Holy Day newspaper ads I ever saw was a display box that read, from top to bottom: “Sit - Stand - Sit - Stand - Sit - Stand - Come sit in our pews - And see what we stand for.”
With all the up and down we will be doing throughout the Days of Awe, it can get to be mere routine. So it’s crucial to remember that the standing is for a purpose.
Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) calls upon the entire Israelite nation: Atem n’tzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Elohechem, (“You stand today, all of you, before Adonai, your God.”) But rather than the usual verb for the physical act of standing, la’amod, the Torah deliberately chooses a verb with a more complex meaning.
In Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:24), Moses uses the same root word to assure the Israelites that God will give them strength against their enemies. “Lo yityatzev ish l’fanecha,” Moses tells them, “No man will be able to stand against you.” Nitzavim denotes strength and the ability to withstand pressure from outside forces. It means that Israel is “presenting itself” to God as a unified nation, not as the scattered and ragtag group that left Egypt a generation before. Israel is, in essence, reporting for duty — for Divine service. But what, exactly, is the job? The Torah itself gives us some clues.
First, it’s important to note that every single person in the community is called to stand at attention — men, women and children; people of all backgrounds and abilities; those of every socio-economic group, “from the woodchopper to the water-drawer” and even the resident non-Jews in the camp. Each individual has equal value and worth, to the community and to God. Everyone abides by the same rules. So among the values the Israelite nation must stand for are fairness, justice, inclusion and equality.
It is not coincidence that Nitzavim is read just before the High Holy Days — and additionally, in Reform congregations, on Yom Kippur morning. At a time when we seek to improve what is within us in order to improve the world around us, we must always use the standards of fairness and justice, remembering that we are no more, but no less, important in the cosmic scheme than anyone else.
Second, God — through Moses — then invokes the covenant “as He promised to you and as He swore to your fathers.” A promise, then, is a promise. And while we may ask God to release us from promises unkept at Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur, we do so only as a last resort, and with the knowledge that our words count as much as our deeds, and that our language must reflect honesty and integrity.
Third, God now gives warnings — and then blessings. The warnings come first — all the bad things that will happen to the Israelites if they disobey God. But in the end, there’s always a possibility of restoration. No one is so evil or so beyond repair that he or she cannot find a path home to God. “Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you,” promises God through Moses (Deuteronomy 30:4). The parsha ends with the call to “choose life” over death — and teaches us that it is always within our power to redeem ourselves and help pursue the tikkun of the world.
By invoking heaven and earth to witness this convenant, God reminds us that our words and deeds have cosmic consequences. So what we stand for — during these holy days and beyond — is not for us alone, nor only for our family or community, but for all of humanity. Every time you stand in the pews, ask yourself, then: What do I stand for?
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)