Time of reflection is at hand

Time of reflection is at hand

Rabbi Sharyn Henry
Rabbi Sharyn Henry

Nitzavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Nelson Mandela has been in the news recently with reports about his failing health.

The anti-apartheid activist who became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, is 95 years old; even if he survives this health crisis, he is nearing the end of his life.

In this passage, from the final paragraph in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela looks back over his life:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

In Nitzavim-Vayelech, the Israelites approach the end of their 40-year journey in the wilderness. Moses pauses to catch a glimpse of the land he will not enter, and to look back on the distance he and the Israelites have come. Moses addresses the people from the mountains overlooking Israel. He is an old man; he is at the end of his life.  

Nitzavim-Vayelech comes at the end of the Torah and we read it at the end of our Jewish year. It is a time of reflection for us, a pause. The new year, like a vista, is spread out before us. We look back at the distance we have come in the past year.

The first words of the double portion are familiar to many: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem (you stand today, all of you). We normally translate “kulchem” as “all of you,” and understand that it means that all of the people were there. Indeed, the text goes on to tell us that the tribal heads, elders, officials, the men, women and children, the strangers and the workers…all of those gathered and even those not present at that moment (Deuteronomy 29:9–14). It is an invitation to all of us, throughout the generations and for all time, to put Torah and Jewish tradition at the center of our lives.  

A young colleague recently suggested another way to look at this phrase as we approach Rosh Hashana. What, she wondered, if we understand “kulchem” to mean “all that we are” or “our entire selves.” This meaning is provocative as it challenges us to engage our whole selves in the inventory-taking process known as cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul), which requires us to examine all aspects of ourselves — our relationships with our loved ones, with ourselves, with our belongings, and with God. Some have suggested we inventory how we interact with the environment, with the earth, with the workers who make our goods and with the farmers who grow our food. Others challenge us to examine the work we do, the tzedaka we give, the gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion and generosity) we do. At this time of year, we hold all of ourselves, our entire selves — everything we are, do, say, buy, and think — accountable.

As we read Nitzavim-Vayelech, let’s work on putting our whole selves in to the process of preparing for the new year. Let’s pause, gaze into the year ahead, mull over the year that has passed and then, all of us together, take our first joyful steps into 5774.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)