This week we read the Torah portion right before Rosh Hashanah, Nitzavim. Shabbat Nitzavim comes literally a day before the New Year. As we read the words, we are literally standing at the edge of the New Year. The Israelites too are standing at the edge of the Promised Land. We don’t know what to expect and they didn’t know either.
In both cases our ancestors and for us are renewing the covenant with God. Each year as we come to the edge of the New Year we come face to face with our traditions and the chance to renew our connection to God through our holy covenant, first given at Mt. Sinai. On the New Year and during the Ten Days of Awe through to Yom Kippur even as we purge ourselves of our sins and purify ourselves from them, we get ready to stand up and receive the Revelation of our unique path in the world. The Torah, our covenantal promise and ethical blueprint for living is renewed and we re-affirm our commitment to this Jewish way of life!
This week’s Torah portion makes it abundantly clear that this is our task. The words of Torah to the Israelites remind us that this covenant is made with the Israelites as they stood across the Jordan from Eretz Yisrael and simultaneously this covenant is made with future generations. That is all of us! And the Torah portion reminds us that this covenant isn’t too hard to follow. It is simple no matter what our station in life. The words of Torah, God’s words of instruction, are clear.
The Torah even describes our straying from the Jewish way. It describes how we will chase after false gods but it also describes how we will be brought back to the Jewish way of life. “You will return and listen to the voice of Adonai” (Deut. 30:7). This is our task during these Days of Awe: To return in love and listen to God speak to us once again, even if we have previously gone astray. And this is the message of Nitzavim.
The Torah portion reminds us that God gives us free will. “I set before you this day, life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you and your offspring shall live” (Deut. 30:19). We are a people who choose to affirm life. We are a people whose covenant affirms life and goodness and the blessing that comes from our covenantal way of life.
That is why what happened in Libya to our Ambassador Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith and 2 other US personnel is so shocking to our sensibilities. Protest is one thing. Murder in cold blood another. In a Democracy even a fledgling one like Libya protest is healthy but when it turns deadly and violent it is a violation of our beliefs. We Jews believe we have free will and can control our actions. Violence of that sort and murder and terrorism is against our way of life. Choose life. That is what we are to do.
As we stand on the edge of the New Year looking into the Promised Land of 5773, we offer our condolences to the families of the slain diplomats. And we re-commit ourselves to the notion that choosing life and blessing should guide us into the New Year.