Many of us remember sliding into a seat at school, breathless from running across the schoolyard or down a corridor, late because we overslept or because of an early sports or music practice, or because we stayed up half the night cramming for a test. The teacher called our name, and exhausted or not, we responded, "Here. Present." Our bodies were in our seats, but how "present" were we, really?
We Jews have come through a difficult summer on our way to the Days of Awe. The monthlong conflict in the Middle East brought grief, destruction and widespread displacement, as well as a deep sense of unease about the future of our beloved Israel.
This year, we read Nitzavim, along with the following portion, Vayelech, on the Shabbat that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. As Rabbi Alan Lew reminds in his book about these Awesome Days: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, the High Holy Days arrive whether we are "ready or not."
Are we ready to be counted?
This question is at the core of Nitzavim, which begins, "You are presenting yourselves here this day … ." This portion is about being present, about showing up. The well-known quip by Woody Allen that 80 percent of success is showing up rings true because physical presence is a necessary beginning to a relationship.
But Nitzavim suggests that showing up is more than being counted in: "You are presenting yourselves here this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God." The connection between the individual and the community — and between the community and the Holy One — is not only about physical presence, but about accountability. Being counted in is a necessary prerequisite to being counted on. The first part of the portion concludes, "I make this covenant … not with you alone … and with those who are not with us here this day."
A single line in Nitzavim challenges: "Concealed acts [hidden things] concern the Eternal One, Our God; but with overt acts [the revealed things], it is for us and our children ever to apply [observe] all the provisions of this Teaching." This sentence has been a source of rabbinic debate that may have resulted in — or from — the mysterious diacritical dots that appear in the Torah scroll over eleven letters of the phrase "to/for us and to/for our children (for) ever."
The commandment that begins Nitzavim — to stand up, take one's place, and be counted in and on before the Eternal — is direct and immediate.
This is our charge: Be here now.
And this verse explains that "those who are not here this day" include our children. We are charged to be here now, and to be present for and with our children, so they may experience our commitment and engagement with the life of our people.
The power of the decorative marks that distinguish this — and only 14 other sections of the Torah — underscore the teaching, which is expanded by a subsequent line in this portion, "Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
As we come to the end of our yearly cycle of Torah readings, Nitzavim reminds us of the simplicity of the Torah's charge to us, its readers. We are part of an ancient covenant that depends on us to show up and to be counted. Wherever we have traveled in the past months, years or decades, Nitzavim — and the Days of Awe that follow this reading — can be a time of return, of reclaiming a sense of connection and of purpose.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., is director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Philadelphia Federation and Pennsylvania Council.