In the divrei Torah I’ve been offering since I arrived, we’ve been looking at the conjunction of the month of Elul and the haftorot of consolation—the month of the Hebrew calendar during which we warm up for the experience of tshuva, repentence/returning, and the special readings from the Prophet Isaiah that we use for seven weeks following the holiday of Tisha b’Av, to help us cope with the historical catastrophe that we revisit at the height of the summer every year—the destruction of the Temple. I’ve been interpreting the weekly Torah portions in this context, trying to pull out a sense of what it means to atone in the consciousness of a catastrophe—how it might inspire us to perceive what is sacred with a distinct urgency or acuity, how it might challenge or intensify our sense of justice.
I want to begin this week by taking a closer look at the centerpiece of this catastrohpe we’ve been talking about—the Temple. From the Tanakh, we learn that there were two Temples, one built by Solomon, and the other begun in the restoration following the Babylonian exile, and that the instinct to create a sacred space of this kind goes all the way back to Mount Sinai. God told Moses that the people could not linger forever at the base of the mountain where they had been privledged to hear the voice of God, in all its terrible beauty, piercing through the fabric of the mundane. But the remedy for this unfortunate departure was to build a portable sanctuary, the Mishkan, that would take the revelation of Sinai and make it portable; transform the spontaneous experience that occurred on top of a mysterious mountain in the wilderness into a cultural performance, invoking the presence of the divine through special words, clothing, sights, smells, and ceremonies, performed by priests and mediated through the powerful figure of Moses. When the Hebrews finally settled in the Promised Land, they transposed this travelling roadshow into a fixed monument: the Jerusalem Temple. This was for our ancestors what the Greeks called the omphalos—the navel or center of the world; the focal point of their expectations; the anchor of their spiritual existence.
Rabbinic writing contains many laments over the loss of the Temple, giving us a sense of how their world fell apart after it was destroyed in the Roman conquest of Judea. They tell us that the rains no longer fell as graciously as they used to when the Temple was standing. They talk about ruins haunted by shades and wild animals. They imagine God godself sitting up late into the night, keeping a vigil, moaning, “Why did I destroy my house and banish my children?” They invoke the famous words of the book of Lamentations–Hashivenu adonai eleycha v’nashuva, hadesh yamenu k’kadem—not as a purely spiritual metaphor, but as a statement of a physical reality: we had this great place, where we stood in the presence of the divine, and now it’s gone. We want tshuva—we want to return to it. We want it made chadash—we want it renewed.
But our Torah portion today opens with a striking contrast to this specter of exile, loss, and alienation. Nearing the end of his final address to the people, while they stand on the far side of the Jordan, Moses says: atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei adonai eloheychem—”You are standing today before the Lord your God.” Rather than standing over the ruins of a demolished sanctuary, in galus, in exile from what they held most dear, the Jews of Moses’s moment are nitzavim, standing right where they should be, before the Lord their God. This parsha is actually full of well-known phrases speaking to the nearness of God—the radical accesibility of the right and holy: lo bashamayim hi…It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart…”
But we should bear in mind that we’re reading a double porton today, not just Nitzavim by itself. The names of double-portions are functional labels, two different titles stuck together with a hyphen, but this method of naming often seems to render an evocative phrase that we can read like inkblots or Zen riddles. Earlier in the year, we read acharei mot-kedoshim “After the death…Holy”; another is called Bahar-Bekhukotai “On the mountain…within my laws.” (To be fair, there is one in Leviticus called “Tazria-Metzora”, which translated roughly as “Leprosy-Discharge”…) The name of today’s double portion does seem to suggest something important: Nitzavim—you are standing, you are here now, you are in the presence—is coupled with the portion “Va-yelekh”—and he went. Contemplating the experience of nitzavim, of standing in the presence of God, we are confronted abruptly with va-yelekh a verb of departure; reminded that the only constant is change, that peaks are followed by valleys, or crashes—depending on how softly you come down. Nitzavim—you are standing in the presence; va-yelekh—you must inevitably leave the presence.
I’ll admit that the first thing this made me think of was my wedding day. We got married on a mountain, not Sinai but one of the beautiful tree-covered ridges of the Great Smokey Mountains, outside of Gatlinburg. We spent the shabbos weekend welcoming loved one after loved one to our holy convocation, praying, eating, laughing, making music, frantically taking care of last minute details. We were married on a warm sunny day, blessed and serendaded under the huppah by family and friends. We danced well into the night, and the party drew to a close with a group of our friends holding hands and swaying around us in a circle as we held each other close and moved to a slow and mellow song. And then, in the morning (the afternoon, maybe?), we woke up and everyone was gone. It reminded me of the Irish tales I’ve heard about men who dance with the fairyfolk by the fullmoon and wake in the morning to find themseles face down in the dew. We emptied the balloons out of the car, wiped off the shaving cream, and began slowly making our way up north. We spent a night and day in Asheville, North Carolina, and wondered why nobody in the restaurants dropped everything to sing for us, or demanded that we kiss. By the end of the week, I was back at work, preparing to officiate the funeral of the mother of one of my congregants. Nitzavim-va-yelekh. You are standing in the presence, and then it is gone.
The va-yelekh of this second parsha, however, is not a general, abstract statement. This “and he went” has a very specific and familiar subject. Va-yelekh moshe—and Moses went–va-yidaber et had’varim ha’eleh el kol yisrael– and spoke these words to all of Israel–va-yomer aleyhem ben-me’ah v’esrim anokhi hayom v’lo okhal od l’tseit v’la’vo v’adonai amar eylai lo ta’avor et hayarden ha’zeh—and he said to them: “I am 120 years old today and I cannot go out and come in anymore, and God has said to me: you will not cross this Jordan.” Moses himself is accutely aware of his va-yelekh–that he is going, that, at the end of his life and mission, he is falling away from the presence. What is interesting, as we read further, is that his concern seems less with his own fate (although we get the sense he isn’t exactly happy about it) as with the issue of what will happen to the people when he is gone. Just as the mishkan, and later the Temple, were meant to serve as cultural representations of the transcendant experience at Mount Sinai, so too is Moses a kind of bridge or linking figure between the people and their highest selves. He is the one who stood panim-el-panim with God, face-to-face, mediating the terrifying voice. And now, as he feels himself fading, he is worried what will happen to the people without his own presence as an emissary and a goad. Maybe this explains the urgency of the statement that begins our first parsha today: atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei adonai eloheychem. Look, he says, your are standing in the presence of God this very day. Even without the lightening and thunder of Sinai, the pomp and circumstance of the ruined Temple, the bliss of a wedding day, there is a way you can still taste it, or, at least, contantly remind yourselves that the potential for such elevation exists in your lives, and despite the flow of circumstances, the waxing and waning of enthusiasms, you may find yourselves able to turn and return to it.
The real question is: how? How can you sew the legacy of remarkable moments into the fabric of your daily experience. How can you make sure that your intimation of the deepest or highest that life has to offer continues to command your attention, even as time washes on. Moses has two answers. Preparing to relinquish his authority to Joshua, he does two interesting things: 31:9—va’yikhtov Moshe et haTorah ha’zot va’yitnenah lakohanim—And Moses wrote down his Torah, and he gave it to the priests. And then in 31:22—va’yikhtov moshe et hashirah ha’zot ba’yom ha’hu vyilmideha et b’nai yisrael—and Moses wrote down on that day the song that God had taught him to sing, and he taught it to the Children of Israel. He teaches us here that it is the stories that we tell, and the songs that we sing, fashioned in response to our most important experiences or handed down to us by tradition, that will remind us of what it means to stand in the presence, to be nitzavim, even as we are va-yelekh, going on our way.
I want to close by illustrating this point with another story—and I’ll tell the short version. It was recently retold to me by an old friend of the family, and it had to do with being wheeled through the corridors of a hospital on his way to emergency heart surgery, not knowing, in the words of the unetanah tokef prayer that we will recite in only a few days, if he would live or die. In the midst of his own existential turmoil, and in the bustling hallway, he suddenly saw an orthodox woman, sitting on a bench, holding a siddur, a prayerbook. He asked her to say a blessing for him, and she stood over him, while the ordelies waited, and recited the 23rd psalm. He was filled with a sense of calm that he carried with him into the operating room. I don’t think he was suggesting that the words had some kind of supernatural effect on him. The way he described it was to say, “I never quite understood why we say that we ‘practice’ Judaim. It struck me as a funny word to use, ‘practice’. But now I understood: we practice, because every once in a while we actaully need to be able to do it.” This song he had been singing for a long time by rote, this psalm which may have initially been composed in response to a moment of intense emotion, now reopened a refuge for him, a sanctuary of peace and presence. It was certainly a modest sanctuary, in comparison to the glory of the Temple, as it has been described to us. But we should remember that Moses, when he was going away and reminding us that we are nitzavim hayom—standing this day in the presence of the holy—stressed that this holiness was not to be found in heaven or across the sea. “No,” he said. “It is very near to you. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart.”