For many Americans, Labor Day weekend marks the conclusion of summer. Schoolchildren and college students, teachers and administrators begin a new year with hopes of achievement and growing friendships and excitement about fulfilling projects and dreams. For others of us, September is the beginning for new projects at work, a time of diving back in after vacations and summer schedules.
This year, Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 8. For some, this "early" arrival of our New Year's celebration may seem enormously inconvenient. We're just getting back into our rhythm, and we're not ready to respond to the demands of the Jewish calendar. Perhaps we are not sure how or where to celebrate the holidays, for we've moved, or have experienced welcome or unwelcome changes in our lives, and we don't have an immediately obvious "home" for the Holy Days.
Many of us, at times in our lives, may have felt angry or alienated from family and friends, from our communities of origin, or perhaps from the Jewish community. So we wonder, why observe?
This week's double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, speaks directly to this question. These chapters from the book of Deuteronomy make it clear that every individual matters. The text explicitly addresses "all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer … ."
At this season of forgiveness, the text draws us close, reminding that each of us is included in the people who are challenged, again and again, to sustain relationships with one another and with God.
This explicit language of inclusion is one of the reasons this portion is read in Reform synagogues on Yom Kippur day. The text states that God's covenant is made "not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day … and with those who are not with us here this day." Whether we claim our heritage or not, whether we count ourselves among those who gather in synagogues at this time of year or not, Judaism claims us, and counts us and all those who will follow us.
These two portions complement one another: Nitzavim focuses on the essential role each member of the community plays in realizing the covenant, and Vayelech underscores the role of each individual's relationship with the Torah.
Both portions focus on the accountability of each individual as an essential component of the collective. Moses encourages the people and their new leader, Joshua, to "be strong and resolute." These words are echoed by the Holy One as Joshua is charged to lead the Israelites into Canaan.
What do these words mean to those of us who stand at a crossroads in our lives, unsure of how or why to join other Jews in the holidays to come? We may read "be strong and resolute" as "Look within. If you discern with attention and an open heart, a path may open for you. It may take time and demand your full energies, but if you are strong and resolute, the way will become clear."
The words of Nitzavim amplify the accessibility of this goal: "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens … neither is it beyond the sea … . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart … ."
May each of us find our way home as this New Year begins.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as Union rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]
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