Be Here Now
‘Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem…’ – ‘Today, you all stand before the Eternal your God’. These are the momentous opening words of our Torah reading. This apparently simple verse encapsulates this entire, spectacular Yom Kippur reading. In fact, the first word—hayom, today—is a fractal, a miniature, of this Parashah and perhaps even of Judaism. Let us look at four possible ways of approaching this seemingly ordinary sentence and examining the function this one remarkable word, ‘today’.
Firstly Today can speak to us plainly and simply refer to the time of the narrative. In that case, ‘today’ is a finite point in history, over three thousand years ago, when Moses addressed the people just before they crossed the Jordan and entered the land of Israel. The focus is on ‘nitzavim’—to stand firmly as the Jewish people, rooted in history.
If we read it like this, ‘today’ is an ancient Declaration of Independence which determined the fate of an entire people. ‘Today’ recounts the girdling of loins and the unsheathing of swords. The people are gathered, from the lowest water bearer to the highest chief. They stand united: before God, their leader and the vision that binds them all. Empires may rise and fall. The ancient Egyptians will only leave us their pyramids and the ancient Greeks only their philosophy. But Judaism stands as strong today as it did then. Today is history.
Today can also speak to us metaphorically. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic Rebbe, the ‘Today’ in Parashat Nitzavim refers to the judgment on Rosh haShanah. The key word is ‘Adonai eloheichem’—the Eternal your God. Today is Yom Kippur, the day on we enter into profound relationship with God, the day on which the Judgment is sealed. We stand before our Creator to contemplate our shortcomings, analyse our deeds and accept consequence. Today, we are purified through prayer, repentance and fasting. Today we travel through the most sacred time of our Jewish calendar. We wear white and deny ourselves food and drink so that way may inherit the quality of angels. We brush up against death and embrace life. Today is timeless.
In our third approach of hayom, Today is tomorrow. Today is Redemption. ‘You all stand before the Eternal your God’ is prophecy. Only when our hearts are truly united in purpose, as illustrated by the important word ‘kulchem’—all of us, then the lion shall down with the lamb and the wood hewer can stand on equal footing with the elder, the parent and child, husband and wife. This is the day where ‘lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchama—nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4). It is the sheathing of swords and the drying of tears. It is the time of the Great Aleinu, when we stretch our imaginations to imagine a redeemed world where the specters of hunger and war plague us no longer. Or as the British band Queen sang, ‘if every leaf on every tree could tell a story that would be a miracle, if every child on every street, had clothes to wear and food to eat, that’s a miracle, if all God’s people could be free to live in perfect harmony, it’s a miracle.’ Today is the future.
And yet, out of all these readings, the one I find most compelling is my final and fourth reading. Today—hayom—refers to exactly what it is: the present. If we are gathered here now, before the Eternal our God…
It is not only a description of the past, nor only a vision of the future. It is not only an encounter with eternity, rather it is Now.
The traditional commentators, who analysed each word of the Torah, conclude that ‘there is no beginning or end to the Torah’. What they mean by this is not that the stories are out of sequence but rather, that there is an eternal quality to these stories. The cadence of Biblical Hebrew, with its mixture of present, past and future tenses, forces us to take the Torah on her own terms—she speaks to us still today. We can relate to the characters and their stories, their blessings and travails. In each of our communities, there is a Sarah struggling with infertility, there is an Isaac who suffers in silence, there is a Jacob who experiences personal growth. There is a Moses who rises to leadership, despite apparent handicaps, there is a Miriam who gets unjustly punished for delivering legitimate criticism, there is a Rivka who struggles with the meaning of life.
But the Torah is not only relevant because her stories still compel us but also because Judaism offers us a methodology of the present. Judaism forces us into the reality of Now. As our Parashah states, ‘ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi metzavecha hayom lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo rechokah hi: lo bashamayim hi’—for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, or to remote. It is not in heaven…’ God doesn’t want to set us up for failure or taunt us with what isn’t. Rather, God wants us to reach and touch and experience and live. In the words of Psalms 34:8, ‘taste and see that God is Good’. Life is to be lived in the full and sanctified in our midst. Our lives are not in Heaven, or beyond the sea so that we may be disempowered and feel small. No, today is tangible and real, close to us, in our mouths and our hearts, so that we may live it and be fully present.
Not only does Judaism want us to be fully present, Judaism forces us to be fully present. We make blessings over the rainbow and the sea, over freshly baked bread hot from the oven and a juicy, blushing apple. We make blessings upon seeing long-lost friends and upon hearing good news. So many of our traditions, rituals and laws are geared towards sensitizing us to the sanctity of life. We do not dwell on death or hypothesize about the Hereafter. What matters is the work of our hands and the path before our feet. When we enshroud ourselves in our tallit, we feel soft wool brush against our skin. When we light Shabbat candles with our loved ones, we feel the weight of a week lift from our shoulders as we celebrate rest with loved ones. When we make a conscious decision about what we do and do not eat, we empathise with the farmers who grow our food and the animals which are slaughtered for our nourishment.
To be present is to be engaged. It means that we can open our Bibles and prayer books and let the words invite us into an ancient conversation. It means that we can engage in lively discussion with our friends and fellow congregants. We can be angry and hurt and disappointed by our Judaism, just as we can fall in love with it and cherish it and feel moved to tears by it. Either way, it means that we care. Caring means we have the courage and strength to make our Judaism fully our own. It means that we are committed to studying and learning and doing. Or as the Children of Israel answered upon receiving the Torah: ‘na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do and we will listen’.
To be engaged is to be responsible. It means that we embrace our heritage and that we wrestle with it, warts and all. We are anguished over injustices and cruelties perpetrated by our texts and our communities. We vow to change and renew and open up when Judaism shuts the doors on so many of us, when it locks out women or homosexuals or minorities. To be responsible is to be covenanted. ‘L’av’r’cha bivrit Adonai eloheicha uvalato asher Adonai eloheicha koret imcha HAYOM.’—‘…to enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal One your God makes with you this day.’
Our covenant is based on choice. Free will is a cardinal value and undeniable reality in our religion. ‘Hachayim v’hamavet natati lefaneicha, habracha v’hak’lalah u’bacharta bachayim l’ma’an ticheyeh ata v’zarecha’—‘I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’
The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides reminds us of this unshakable truth in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence 5:1-3: “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands...".
It is the right and the responsibility to choose that makes us distinctly human and that makes our Judaism real, modern and genuine. We all have to choose, just as we all stood at the foot of the mountain to hear the lightning and see the thunder. Being in the moment, fully present, awake, covenanted and committed—is what gives our lives value. Cherish every moment, savour every breath. Sit here on this day, this holy and awesome day. Do not only think, but breathe, feel, touch. Make yourself aware of your surroundings and of your community, of the chair that you sit in, the melodies that ring in your eyes and the love that envelops you. Hold the experience of loved ones in your life and the bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with you. Let the sun warm your skin and the breeze stroke your hair.
Let this Yom Kippur wash over you, the songs and words, the tunes and silences, the standing and the sitting, the hunger and thirst, the love and the awe. It is all real and all holy. This day is a mosaic of past, present and future. Judaism speaks to our history and our Redemption, it speaks to our sense of eternity. But most of all, let it speak to us today.
Our Parashah ends with an injunction to love God. How can we be forced to love God? In fact, can we know how we love Something that most of us find hard to define, to grasp or to understand? And yet, Torah provides us with the answer. Love is never abstract, it is always real. Be present in this awe-inspiring world and cast off the sin of indifference. Love will come from a tactile appreciation of life as it is. Let us set this day before our eyes. Be. Here. Now.