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Tuning into Today

Walking in God’s ways

In Parashat Ki Tavo, buy more about we read the blessings that the Jewish people merit when we follow God’s commandments and the curses that, treat God forbid, store we incur if we do not. One of the high points of the blessings is in the verses, “God will elevate you to be a holy people to Him as He swore to you if you keep the commandments of Havayah, your God and you shall walk in His ways. And all the nations of the world will see that God’s Name is called upon you and they will fear you.”

In addition to the blessing of becoming God’s holy nation, these verses also contain the commandment to, “walk in God’s ways.” The Alter Rebbe teaches,

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to walk in God’s ways, as it says, “You shall walk in His ways.” … Just as He is called gracious, so you shall be gracious and give freely; just as He is called compassionate, so you shall be compassionate; just as He is called long-suffering, so you shall be long-suffering. Likewise, with respect to all other human attributes, one must resemble his Creator and spurn the evil attributes and choose the good.”[1]

Maimonides mentions another attribute, “Just as He is holy, so you shall be holy.”[2] This attribute is rooted in the above-mentioned verse, “God will elevate you to be a holy people to Him,” which ends with the promise that this will come by merit of our walking in His ways.” Thus, being holy reflects both the state of our service and also God’s promise to us.

An upright stance

The concept of holiness is central in the Torah, but here it appears in what is a unique context. First, we need to take note of the verb, “God will elevate you” (????????? ???’), which is reminiscent of the phrase at the end of the blessings in Parashat Bechukotai: “And I will lead you erect,” (????????? ??????? ????????????). Here too we can interpret the blessing to mean that one of the qualities of a holy people is to take a stately and upright stance which itself instills fear in our enemies, making them afraid to harm us.

Our sins are insulting to God

However, we need to understand what it means to be “holy with an upright stance.” A stately, upright stance seems to imply pride and thus appears to contradict the attribute of humility, obviously one of the positive attributes that we must aspire to in order to fulfill the commandment of “you shall walk in His ways.” In fact, Maimonides states that one must aspire to reach extreme humility.

In his work “Tomer Devorah,” Rabbi Moses Cordovero (the Ramak) describes how one should go about resembling God’s thirteen attributes (enumerated in Micah 7). The first attribute he mentions is, “The fact that the Almighty is an insulted King, who suffers insults.” People use the vitality God grants them to rebel against His will, yet despite this immense insult, God continues to vitalize them even as they are sinning. This, states the Ramak, is the extent to which we too should humbly bear insults.

So, on the one hand, we need to adopt a stately stance that transmits fear to our enemies, but on the other, it is a positive attribute to be humble and lowly, long-suffering and submissive to the furthest extreme.

Essential majesty

The integration of stateliness with humility is most fully expressed at the communal level. Our upright stance is not meant to express the individual pride that each of us may harbor about him or herself. The blessing is that the Jewish people as one unit should stand erect, without feeling ashamed to act as Jews to whom God gave the Torah and the land of Israel.

On a more profound level, the word “holy” implies “separation.” A holy entity is one that is totally separate from mundane reality. Holiness has the quality of “essential majesty” (?????? ?????), as taught in Chassidut. Anything that is referred to as “holy” (????), e.g. “A holy nation,” is majestic by definition. The realization of that majesty is in our upright stance, and that is the revelation of God’s Name upon us.

Only those who have “essential majesty” can bear insults to the greatest extent, because they have no need for any external confirmation. By being rectified and holy, the governing regime does not feel a need to trample on others in order to sense its majesty; in fact it does not even have any need to elevate itself at all, since it is majestic in and of itself. Only an unholy and unrectified ruler, such as the seven kings of the World of Chaos, feels a need to elevate himself at someone else’s expense. Such a ruler cannot bear anyone else rearing their heads and senses that everyone is a threat to his sovereignty.

The Almighty is “Elevated and Holy” and He in particular can reside with “the downtrodden and low-spirited.” He is the most patient and tolerant. As the sages say, “Wherever you find the Almighty’s greatness, there you will find His humility.” Similarly, when the Jewish people are granted control they continue to cling to God’s attributes, walking in His ways, and their essential majesty is never diminished even as they remain “compassionate, shy and acting with loving-kindness.”

Standing in awe

Now we can begin to understand the sense of awe that we should experience when standing before a king. When we say in our prayers during the Ten Days of Repentance, “The Holy King” (???? ?????), we stand in awe, but this is the amazed awe of God’s essential majesty, not the fear we might experience when approached by someone who threatens to trample us. Just as we recognize God’s essential majesty, so the nations of the world will experience the essential majesty of the Jewish people, fulfilling the promise of the verse, “and they [the nations] shall fear you.” Obviously enemies of the Jewish people who wish us harm should be stricken with fear for their lives, but the essential sense of awe that is realized in the righteous nations comes from contemplating the walking wonder of the people of Israel, who on the one hand are “insulted but do not insult,” yet on the other hand, they contain a spark of essential majesty from the Almighty, the King of all Kings.

[1] Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chayim 156.

[2] Hilchot De’ot, ch. 1.

In this week’s parashah, and Parashat Nitzavim, order Moses gathers the entire Jewish people before God and formulates a covenant between them, healing beginning with the words, “You are all standing here today….” The Zohar reveals that the word “today” (????) alludes to Rosh Hashanah, especially in the final Torah portions of Deuteronomy. So, even though this covenant was made on the day of Moses’ passing, the 7th of Adar, in effect we renew it every year on Rosh Hashanah.

Obviously, Rosh Hashanah—literally, the “Head of the Year”—has an explicit connection with time, which is divided into past, present and future.

A well known aphorism states that, “The past is no longer, the future is yet to be, and the present, is like the blink of an eye,” and the sages state that, “God’s salvation comes in the blink of an eye.” In order for us to experience God’s salvation, to merit “Mashiach now!” we must strengthen our connection with the fleeting moment of the present.

In Hebrew, the present is also known as “intermediate time” (??? ??????). In the Tanya, the basic tome of Chabad philosophy, the Alter Rebbe stresses that we should strive to be an “intermediate” (??????), implicitly directing us to focus our consciousness on the present moment. A righteous individual lives in the future, constantly experiencing the World to Come; the wicked individual (??????), is held back by undesirable deeds (?????) from his past (???); but the intermediate, who lives in the present, is free of his past transgressions and experiences God’s imminent salvation at every moment; he is truly liberated.

We are taught in Chassidut that any consummate reality is inter-inclusive; every one of its elements reflects the others. Accordingly, although “today” refers to the present moment, nonetheless, it also includes within it a reflection of both the past and the future. This inter-inclusion of the past, present, and future within the present is apparent in the first six verses of Parashat Nitzavim, in which the word “today” (????), representing the present, appears five times.

The past within the present is alluded to in the first two verses, which begin: “You are all standing here today before Havayah, your God.” In contradistinction to the inclusiveness and unity suggested in these opening words, the remainder of the verse and the following verse enumerate ten different levels of Jews. The contrast between the unity of the people as a whole as we stand before the Almighty and the various levels of individuals within the whole teaches us that any status we may have acquired becomes a thing of the past as we stand together before the Almighty, renewing our covenant with Him on Rosh Hashanah.

The next two verses refer to the present within the present, “That you may enter the covenant of Havayah your God, and His oath, which Havayah your God is making with you this day; in order to establish you today as His people and that He will be your God, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” The present moment is about action, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed time and again. These two verses describe the act we perform on Rosh Hashanah: renewing the covenant that God made with us and reestablishing our status as God’s people.

The final two verses are a unique Biblical example of including the future within the present, as they describe how all future generations of the Jewish people participate in the present moment. “And not with you alone am I making this covenant… but with those who stand here with us today… and with those who are not here with us today.”

Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, past, present and future fuse into one awe-inspiring moment as we renew our covenant with the Almighty, “To establish you today for Him as a people and He will be your God.”

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