Preparing for the High Holy Days

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By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

This week’s Torah portion is Nitzavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30.

In ancient times, gatherings were matters of both ritual and commerce. Torah is read on Shabbat and holidays and also on Mondays and Thursdays since those two days were market days and offered a means of providing a minyan to be able to fulfill the ritual of hearing Torah and reciting certain prayers.

Today, after the separations caused by COVID, we realize how important it is to gather. Not just for the sake of ritual but also to add value to our communal life. This week’s double portion begins: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, your tribal heads, your elders, and you officials, all of the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer…” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).

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How appropriate that we read these words on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and on the day of Yom Kippur. Perhaps, we should also insert the word “gather” to the verse and read, “gather and stand.” Yet, the structure of these opening verses serves to remind us that every word is precious and precise. Repeating God’s name emphasizes exactly who it is that we ultimately need to come before and return to at the end of our days. It is also one of the reasons we do cheshbon hanefesh (taking an inventory of one’s soul-work) and teshuvah (returning to God and the ways of Torah) together.

Many individuals are taught that the word “teshuvah” means “repentance,” and while we do ask for repentance, we do so by returning to the scene and individual one has wronged in order to change one’s actions. The act of teshuvah is demonstrating that we have changed and learned through the situation. By returning to and following the laws of Torah, we return to the ethical means of living our lives in a moral way.

In Parashat Nitzavim, there is a sevenfold encounter with the theme of teshuvah — not just among human beings but also with God. Just as Israel returns to God, God returns to Israel. One midrash (legend) teaches that when one returns to God in a righteous manner, one is witness to the possibility of repentance. True teshuvah comes about when one asks for forgiveness and, when presented with the opportunity to stray again in the same type of situation, chooses to follow the correct path. In other words, true repentance is being witness to one’s own return to God.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, the journey of preparing to stand before God may feel daunting. Yet, more than anything, it is a process.

Many of us may feel that we have been doing plenty of contemplation and soul-searching during the past few years of COVID. Hopefully, we will be able to be honest with ourselves and truly examine our actions and deeds of this past year and seek out those we have wronged. We must try our best in order to be able to stand before God with a clean slate and the true intention of return.

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami of Frederick in Frederick, Va.

 

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