Parashat Nitzavim (Rosh Hashanah): Only Today

The Torah portion of Nitzavim deals mainly with the covenant between God and the Jewish People. The key word in this portion is “today."

You are all standing today before Havayah, your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, from your woodcutters to your water drawers.

That you may enter the covenant of Havayah, your God, and His oath, which Havayah, your God, is making with you today. In order to establish you today as His people, and that He will be your God, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers; to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Yet, not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before Havayah, our God, and [also] with those who are not here with us today.

The above verses emphasize this idea – it all occurs “today.” In these first six verses, “today” appears five times, and eight more times in the rest of the portion, thirteen times altogether. The moment to serve God is now. “If not now – when?” A well-known Hebrew expression states, “The past has gone by, the future has yet to come and the present is like the wink of an eye.” The present moment is all that we have. Don't get trapped in the past, and don't nurture illusions about the future, because neither exists.

Hebrew grammarians call the present “intermediate time” (זְמַן בֵּינוֹנִי). Intermediate time is in effect no more than the blink of an eye that mediates between the past and the future. In his book, the Tanya, Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi defines the intermediate individual as someone who constantly works on himself, without self-deceit. He prepares himself to battle against the evil inclination at every moment and controls himself by distancing himself from evil and doing good. Then he moves on. He does not harbor on the past. This reflects a rectified awareness of “intermediate time.”

The Arrow of Time is Packed into the Present

"Today” refers not only to the present moment. It includes the past, the present, and the future. We can see this distinction in the verses quoted above. The six verses divide into three segments of two verses, according to their content. The verses transport us through the arrow of time that is packed into the present.

Self-Image: The Past in the Present

The first two verses describe all the parts of the nation who stand there at the making of the pact; from the nation's leaders to the simplest citizens:

You are all standing, today, before Havayah, your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, from your woodcutters to your water drawers.

Dividing the people according to their positions represents “the past that is in the present.” Any self-image that an individual might entertain about him or herself is a product of the past. I construct my perception of myself upon all that has transpired in my life until now. The acquisitions, achievements and challenges of my life that happened in the past color my personality in the present and define it.

Yet, the past is gone, and we can and should change our self-image. Chassidut teaches us that every instant we are born anew. As we stand together before God as one, making a covenant with Him, we begin a new phase of life.

Our Covenant with God: The Present in the Present

The two middle verses describe the present within the present:

That you may enter the covenant of Havayah, your God… to establish you today as His people.

Despite the sins of our past, right now, we stand before God. Although we cannot claim to have merited life (life is a gift from the Creator), we continue to exist by the power of the covenant that He has made with us. This pact with God is a permanent bond in our bodies and souls.

This describes the existential Jewish experience: the reason that I exist at this moment is that I am part of a nation with whom God has made a contract. This covenantal contract is the essence of my existence. It obligates me to serve God at every given moment.

The Coming Generations: The Future in the Present

The last two verses relate to the covenant made with future generations:

Yet, not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before Havayah, our God, and [also] with those who are not here with us, today.

Rashi explains that “And those who are not with us today” refers to the future generations. The souls of all the Jewish people stand together with us at this very moment. The covenant we made then is not like an inheritance that obligates the coming generations. It is rather a covenant that God made with every Jewish soul throughout all of history and this covenant is present at every moment, everywhere.

God was, is, and will be. From His perspective, there is no difference between past, present, and future. When God made his covenant with us, He elevated us to His perspective, as it were, and all generations of the Jewish people, then, now, and forever, were included in the covenant.

Now, in our personal service, the entire future is also with us at this very moment. The future depends on my tipping the scales for the best.

Today: Rosh Hashanah

The Zohar explains that the verse, “You are standing today” alludes to the day of Rosh Hashanah. We always read Parashat Nitzavim on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah (either separately, or in conjunction with the following portion, Vayeilech). Indeed, there is a clear relationship between Nitzavim and this festival. Rosh Hashanah is the day we “remind” God of our covenant with Him. The blessing of zichronot ("Remembrances"), unique to the Mussaf (additional prayer) of Rosh Hashanah, concludes, “He who remembers the covenant” (זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית).

As mentioned, “Today” (הַיּוֹם) is the key word in this portion. It also means “The day.” This refers to the unique day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which God created man (i.e., the sixth day of creation), and the day when God created time. Man is the only creature conscious of the passage of time. In our prayers on Rosh Hashanah, we say, “This is the day of the beginning of Your workings, a memory of the first day.” Every year on Rosh Hashanah, we return to the initial point when time began. The day of Rosh Hashanah condenses all time since creation into the present moment.

Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment, which begins the Ten Days of Repentance. The Talmud states, “On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for the intermediates.”[1] On this day, God judges whether and how we are worthy of continuing our lives on this earth in the future.

Today I am an Intermediate

Dividing the community into these three groups (righteous, wicked, or intermediate) reflects the division of time into past, present and future.

The tzaddik, the truly righteous individual (as the Tanya defines him), is one who has overcome his evil inclination and “killed” it. He no longer endures a constant battle against his evil inclination. The tzaddik lives in the future. His perspective goes beyond the mundane world, and he smells the fragrance of the World to Come that is hidden away for the righteous. His struggle in life is to bring the future into the present.

In contrast, the wicked individual lives in the past. Perhaps he thinks that the future is in his hands, but in truth, his past misdeeds enslave him. His desires and inclinations, his destructive habits, his envy, and the honor he seeks for himself, and what not,  all rule over him. He is enslaved by his own self-image. He cannot release himself today from yesterday’s behavior patterns. Sometimes, the wicked person himself senses his enslavement, “the wicked are full of regrets.”[2] The worst scenario is when the wicked individual is so caught up in himself that he does not realize how corrupt his life has become.

The refined elite and the righteous—the tzaddikim—are scarce. Not everyone merits this God-given gift. Yet, we do not want to be wicked. The only remaining option is to be an intermediate person. The intermediate—the beinoni—lives in the present. I am not interested in what happened yesterday, and I not carrying around false expectations about the future. Instead, all I know is that today I stand before God and today I can work on fulfilling my covenant with Him. Today I want to do His will. This is the essence of our service on Rosh Hashanah, and every day of the year.

Hearing the Shofar Blast Today

The Talmud[3] recounts the following:

When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Mashiach, he asked him, “Master, when will you come?” Mashiach responded, “Today.” When that day passed and Mashiach did not come, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi complained to the Prophet Elijah that Mashiach had lied to him… Elijah explained, “This is what he meant, ‘Today, if you heed His voice.’[4]

Not only will Mashiach come today if we heed God's voice. He will come today if we listen carefully to the voice of “Today.” By hearing the “today” of Parashat Nitzavim, the day of Rosh Hashanah, and today’s service of God, we will merit the redemption today. We pray that the future will be revealed right now. “God's salvation is in the blink of an eye”[5] and the present is like the blink of an eye.

The mitzvah unique to Rosh Hashanah is to hear the sound of the shofar. “The mitzvah of the day is with the shofar.”[6] The shofar represents “today.” We need to hear the call of the present moment. The past is gone, and the future is yet to come. Today the sound of the shofar (שׁוֹפָר) arouses us to “improve your deeds”[7] (שַׁפְּרוּ מַעֲשֵׂיכֶם); right now. With every mitzvah that we do today, we make a pact with God. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, called for “Mashiach, Now!” in the present. Like Rabbi Yehoshua be Levi, we want Mashiach today, without further delay.

Every Rosh Hashanah, the shofar of Mashiach is sounded, but until now, it has been “An inner voice that is not heard.”[8] We pray that this year it will be heard loudly and clearly. “And it shall be that on that day a great shofar shall be sounded.”[9] This is the shofar of redemption, today.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh's class of 23rd of Elul 5772, Tel Aviv

[1]. Rosh Hashanah 16b.

[2]. Akeidah 67. Tanya ch. 11.

[3]. Sanhedrin 98a.

[4]. Psalms 95:7.

[5]. Midrash Lekach Tov on Esther 4:17.

[6]. See Tosafot s.v. Tanya on Rosh Hashanah 33a.

[7]. Vayikra Rabbah 29:6. Pesikta Derav Kahana 23:8.

[8]. Zohar 1:210a.

[9]. Isaiah 27:13.

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