Nitzavim-Vayalech: Its time for us to take stock

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Isaiah 61:10-63:9

By Rabbi Amy Eilberg

On this last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, the parashah brings us a dramatic image of a grand and eventful day. "Atem nitsavim hayom" : "You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God…" (Deut. 29:9).

Moses delivers his last exhortation as he prepares for death, offering his last words of warning and promise, of blessing and curse. The people stand poised on the eve of their journey into the land, knowing that their leader is about to die. It is a momentous time.

Many commentators have taken note of the surely purposeful placement of Parashat Nitsavim on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah (though sometimes, like this year, the parashah is combined with Vayelech). The grand and momentous day when the people stand assembled is, of course, Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. It takes but a little imagination to see the grand day described in the parashah as the day when we stand in sacred assembly, waiting for God's guidance, reviewing the blessings and curses of our lives.

This is the day, as the great poet imagined it in the powerful metaphor of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, when it will become clear who shall live and who shall die, who shall be given ease and who will enter a time of suffering, who will be serene and who torn apart. This is the day that we all prepare ourselves to do what we can do — in prayer, soul-searching and deeds of righteousness.

The similarity between Moses' words and the symbolism of the Days of Awe continues as we move through the parashah. "See, I have set before you this day: life and good, death and evil…I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your seed may live, loving the Lord your God, hearing God's voice, and staying close to God…" (Deut. 30:15, 19-20).

The message is harsh, and the poetry is powerful. Moses describes the possibilities in the starkest of terms: Live life according to God's will, a life of mitzvah and of awe and of goodness, and the consequence will be fullness of life for you and yours. Or choose disobedience, alienation from God, attention only to your own will, and you will have no access to depth and richness of life. You will have chosen the way of curse, the way of emptiness, the way of death.

"Therefore choose life." The timeless words contrast sharply with the deterministic sense of the words of blessing and curse. First, we are told that all is in God's hands, that the stakes are already established. And then suddenly we are told, "Choose life." The choice is ours. "Uteshuvah utefillah utsedakah ma'avirin et ro'a hagezera": "Soul-searching, prayer, and righteousness can effect the severity of the decree" (from the High Holiday Machzor).

Moses' words bring us precisely the same imponderable paradox as the poetry of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. First, we are told that God's power towers over us. Then, we are told that we can make a difference. We are told that God wants us to choose life, so that we and the Divine can work in partnership for life, for wholeness, for goodness.

These grand words of Torah, which the rabbis intentionally placed on this important Shabbat just before the holidays, are asking us to begin our Rosh Hashanah reflection today. What would it take for us to really choose life this year? What changes would I have to make to savor the gifts of my life, saying no to distraction and addiction, temptation and selfishness? What would I need to do to choose life for my family? What resolve must we make to align ourselves with the forces of life in the Jewish community? What would it mean to contribute as a member of the human family? What does the earth itself require from each of us?

Each Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ends with a prayer, Hayom ("This day"), echoing the grand immediacy of the Torah's call to choose life, this day and every day. "This day," we ask of God, "Strengthen us. Bless us. Make us great. Seek our happiness. Inscribe us for a good life. Hear our cry. Accept our prayer. Sustain us with Divine justice this day."

May this day, the last day of rest before the Day of Judgment, fill us with passion for life, and guide us in clarity to the choices we must make in the year to come. Amen.