24 Sep Parshat Nitzavim: “Inscribe Us In The Book of Life – For Your Sake, O Living G-d”
In the opening verse of Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe declares to Benei Yisrael, “Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulechem” – “You stand before God today, all of you!” This is generally understood as an expression of encouragement and consolation after the harsh “Tochecha” section presented towards the end of last week’s Parasha, Ki-Tavo. That section describes in graphic detail the terrible calamities God threatened to bring upon Benei Yisrael if they disregard His laws. Here, in Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe reassures the people, “You stand before God today.” Even with all the rebuke and warnings, you stand here before God; ultimately the Jewish people will survive forever, even if they must endure periods of calamity, Heaven forbid.
There is, however, another reading of this verse, whereby it, too, expresses harsh rebuke and admonition. Human beings differ from angels in their ability to change, to grow and improve. Angels cannot change; they remain the same from the moment they come into existence until they expire. For this reason, the prophets generally describe angels as “Omedim,” “standing.” Angels stand in only one place, unable to advance or progress forward. Human beings, by contrast, are often referred to as “Holechim,” “walking,” referring to their capacity to progress, to move forward, to grow, to work on their characters and become better. If a person remains stagnant and complacent, if he has no interest in improving himself and advancing to the next level in religious observance and character refinement, then he has negated his most basic human quality.
Moshe perhaps sensed that after forty years of traveling in the wilderness, the people began lowering their engines, so-to-speak, they began to relax their efforts and go into “cruise control.” He therefore harshly admonishes them, “Atem Nitzavim Hayom” – you are all just standing! You have become like the angels, who are “Omedim,” who remain in one place without progressing forward.
In the first verse of the second Parasha read this week, Parashat Vayelech, Moshe tells the people, “I am one hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go and come, and God has told me, ‘You will not cross this Jordan [River]’.” One Rabbi explained this to mean that when Moshe completed one hundred and twenty years, he reached the maximum point of religious fulfillment, if we can imagine such a thing. The only religious achievement he had yet to realize was observing the Mitzvot in the Land of Israel, and God forbade him from crossing into the land. Therefore, he tells the people, there was no longer any reason for him to continue living. If a person does not grow and advance, if he no longer builds on his previous accomplishments and strives to become something greater, then the purpose of life is lost.
This message that emerges from Parashat Nitzavim is perhaps one of the reasons why Halacha requires reading this Parasha just before Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah we approach God and ask that He grant us another year. Parashat Nitzavim serves to remind us that we are entitled to make this request only if we commit ourselves to using that year for religious growth and achievement. We have no right to beg for another year of life just for us to stay right where we are, without working to move forward, make ourselves better, and draw closer to God.
During the High Holidays we add to our prayer service the request, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for Your sake, O living God!” Some have explained the final phrase – “for Your sake, O living God” – as describing the kind of life for which we ask to be inscribed. We beg the Almighty to inscribe us for another year of life, but not for a life of stagnation, of eating, drinking, sleeping and partying. By American standards, such a life is considered a very good life. But we ask for a life that is “for Your sake, O living God,” a life devoted to Torah and Mitzvot, and life rich in religious meaning and spirituality, a life which we use for the purpose of growing, raising ourselves to new heights, and not for the purpose of “standing” in one place like the angels. Only if we indeed make such a commitment, to work towards greater levels, just a bit each day, are we entitled to approach the Almighty on Rosh Hashanah and beg, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life.”