Nitzavim-Rosh Hashanah (Wanderings)
“You are All Standing This Day”
This title verse of this past Shabbat’s parashah, though in original context refers to the Israelites standing before God on the eve of Moses’ death and shortly before entering the Land, is taken as a metaphor for the occasion on which it is read: the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, when there is a feeling of expectancy, of standing before God, of preparing to accept His kingship upon us, and of waiting with anxiety and uncertainty, as it were, for the judgment on each one of us and all of us together before the bar of Divine judgment, wondering what the new year will bring.
I think about all of the people in my life, wise and learned and thinking Jews, and our ongoing learning and dialogue over the years on the most basic questions: What does it mean, in this puzzling “post-modern” world, to be a good Jew? What, in that context, do we mean by the “good life”? And what do we understand by such words as “faith” and ”Torah”? And what are we doing when we pray?
There is one man I met for the first time this summer—one of the leading intellectuals of the Conservative movement in America—for whom a central maxim is insistence on intellectual integrity, and not fooling oneself and others by making easy conventional statements about God and mitzvot which one does not really believe (this applies especially to rabbis and what they say from the pulpit!). “There is no such thing as faith,” he says, “only knowledge”—and one must be true to what one knows.
There is another who stresses the inadequacy of human language to speak about God: both the theistic language of a transcendent God, who judges and commands and listens to prayer and makes miracles; and the mystical language of the God who is everywhere, who “fills all things” (memale kol almin), who is the All—both alike are metaphors, are no more than human attempts to express the inexpressible. “He is all, and He creates all.”
Then there is my rosh yeshivah, with whom I studied nearly forty years ago: a pious, strictly Orthodox Jew (albeit clean-shaven, an important statement of sorts), with encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud, rishonim, poskim—really, of all Jewish religious texts (but does he know Kabbalah and Hasidut, I wonder)—coupled with a rich knowledge of the Western humanistic and literary tradition. But with all that erudition, he is marked by extraordinary humility, rooted in a kind of pure and innocent, almost simple faith, in absolute certainty that the Torah is devar hashem, the word of God. In a recent book-length interview, he said: “I am an ordinary Jew. There are thousands of people like myself. I simply try to do what the Torah requires.”
And then there is another: one who sees all religions as divergent paths toward the one God. He tells how, at a crucial stage in his life, he met three “candidates” to be his spiritual teacher—a Bratslaver Hasidic rabbi, a Sufi sheikh, and a Zen master. At the time, he chose the Sufi teacher—but then, some years down the road, his teacher told him that the time had come for him to convert to Islam, and he was unwilling to make that final break with Judaism (and with his family). He sees Sufism as a spiritual path, not as part of a “religion.” And so he lives his life as a Jewish Sufi, or perhaps as a Sufi Jew, straddling both worlds: from time to time he comes to my Shabbat table, he davens in all the many kinds of minyanim that exist in Jerusalem, and now and again he goes to Turkey to meet with his Sufi friends (of the more tolerant, liberal ilk of Sufism), for serious religious conversation which, even more than prayer or ecstatic dancing, lies at the very heart of Sufi.
And then there is Hayyim, a hasid of Shlomo Carlebach who, at 60-plus and with numerous children and grandchildren, is still a 20-year-old hippie at heart. He always has a smile on his face, he davens up a storm, and has a kind of simple faith. I think of him as a living, latter-day embodiment of the hero of R. Nahman’s tale of the simpleton and the wise man.
There is also the avowed atheist, the believer in science—in rationalism, in empiricism, who believes that, in principle, it is only meaningful to ask those questions for which one may, at least in principle, attain an empirical, objective answer. Religion, theology, and metaphysics are by their very nature “disciplines” without any final answers, but only endless speculation. But withal, he keeps a kosher home, makes Kiddush on Shabbat, he goes to synagogue on occasion—but for the sense of community, of history, of culture, not because he expects to find God there.
Even more puzzling: there is the brain researcher, who insists that we human beings are programmed to be what they are, There is no free will to speak of, because our lives, our emotional and other reactions, are determined by the “hard-wiring” of the electrical connections of our brains and our nervous systems. But, withal, he is a pious, “Orthodox” Jew, who to all appearances lives a halakhic life, davens three times a day, and recites Kabbalat Shabbat with Hasidic fervor.
And finally, there is this person called Yehonatan, who davens and learns, and writes incessantly. Who is he? What does he think and believe, deep down? And, like all of us, he too receives the call on Rosh Hashanah to answer the question, איכה: where are you? And, what have you done with the nearly 66 years of life you have been given, as a gift from God, to date?
“You are all standing here this day.”
May we all merit to be written in the Book of Life, for a year filled with goodness, learning, creativity, and love for one another—and the health and livelihood to make it possible,
NOTEThe letters of איכה (taken from Gen 3:9, God’s call to Adam in the Garden after eating of the forbidden fruit) may be read as the numbers 1, 10, and 25: the 1st and 10th of Tishrei—i.e., Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and 25th Kislev, the first day of Hanukkah: all days when we render accountings of ourselves. But if w fail, the same word may be read as Eikhah, Lamentations.