Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem — these words that I practiced over and over again some 48 years ago as I trained for my bar mitzvah. These words that my whole family was able to chant with me as I read from the Torah for the first time. “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God.”
Standing before God — what an important lesson to learn on my bar mitzvah — to be able to stand before God. When we stand up against injustice, we are standing before God; when we stand up against intolerance, we are standing before God; when we stand up for our friends and neighbors to help them through adversity, we are standing before God. My parents certainly taught me how to stand.
I am reminded that the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin discusses the main responsibilities that parents have toward their children. Three stand out: Parents should teach Torah to their children, ensure that their children learn a profession and teach their children how to swim.
I wonder if my parents were satisfied with accomplishing two of the three.
I am fairly well versed in Torah — my parents have fulfilled the words of the Shema — “Veshinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam, and you will teach them [the words of the Shema] to your children and will talk about them.” Our home was always one where Judaism was a value present in every decision we made.
The importance in our home growing up on Judaism and living ethically undoubtedly led to my choosing my profession — one where I would commit my heart and soul to the Jewish community and help those around me. Becoming a rabbi was a quite natural progression for me as I grew into adulthood.
The most unusual of these responsibilities is the one that requires us to teach our children how to swim. In the past, when water transportation means were widely used and often presented a great danger, knowing how to swim could mean the difference between survival and drowning, life and death.
Many modern-day scholars argue that in today’s world the responsibility to teach our children to swim is to be read metaphorically. We have the responsibility to teach our children to enter the waters of life to swim sometimes with the currents and sometimes against them. Swimming with the tide, doing what is popular isn’t always the right way, the just way, although it may be the easy way.
We must teach our children to have the courage to speak out against injustice when the majority is silent, we must teach our children to have the strength to swim against the tide when righteousness and fairness demand us to do so. Our children must learn to listen to others and at the same time be true to themselves.
I thank my parents for raising me to be a righteous man (at least I try) in all areas of life. And as many of you know, I cannot swim. (I am proud that at the age of 61 I have completed successfully my first swimming lesson!)
My parents did teach me how to stand, and how fortunate am I to be reminded of the importance of standing before God each year when I read the words of Parshat Nitzavim.
My wife, Mickie, and my children, Avigayil, Ariella and Adam, wish you a healthy and happy New Year, one that allows us to continue to stand together for what is right in this world.
Rabbi Chuck Diamond is spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation.