IF YOU ARE ATEM
YOM KIPPUR MORNING
SEPTEMBER 19, 2018
Rabbi Jon Adland
Many years ago during the summer, Dan Nichols, a Jewish singer/songwriter, introduced a new song—Kehillah Kedoshah—at Goldman Union Camp. The source of the song is found in the words of our Torah reading that we will hear in a little while. The Torah reading begins, “Atem nitzavim—”9You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—11to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.” Dan Nichols’ lyrics interpreted the Torah reading, in part, like this:
If you are “atem” then we’re “n’tzavim.”
We stand here today and remember the dream.
Each one of us must play a part.
Each one of us must heed the call.
Each one of us must seek the truth.
Each one of us is a part of it all.
Each one of us must remember the pain.
Each one of us must find the joy.
It’s how we help.
It’s how we give.
It’s how we pray.
It’s how we heal.
It’s how we live.
The Torah verses and the musical interpretation of the Torah’s words reflect why this is one of the verses that has inspired my rabbinic journey. The verses say that each and every one of us was present at the revelation on Sinai. Moses and you and me all together—generations notwithstanding. God spoke to each and every one of us directly even though we are separated by millennia. God said that each one of us must play the part, heed the call, seek the truth and, in turn, remember that it is this moment that compels us to help, give, pray, heal, and live. God spoke to all of us and I heard that call.
All of the rabbinic commentators agree that the first words, “Atem nitzavim—you stand” indicate that Moses summoned everyone to present themselves before God. Some commentators think this moment of convocation was around the Ark which would have enhanced the moment of holiness. Just like many of us feel that there is a certain enhanced holiness when we enter a sanctuary. Whether the Ark was present or not at Moses’ speech, the gathering of all the people—the men, women, and children—was a unique moment where God was present with you and me. Never before had the entire community been summoned. Even at Sinai, it was Moses who presented himself to God at the top of the mountain and we don’t even know if everyone remaining at the bottom heard the words God spoke. At this moment, here at the shore of the Jordan River, everyone heard. Nahmanides adds what we all know, that this covenantal moment is being made not just with those present, but with future generations as well—you and me. The power of knowing that I was present when Moses spoke these words elevates me in my connection and relationship to the Jewish people throughout time.
There is something powerful in knowing that David and Jeremiah and Hillel and every woman who created a Jewish home and every student who studied Torah and every Jew who has had to flee and every Jew who has created something new heard what Moses said to all of us. “9You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—11to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.” Every one of us, you and me, entered the covenant at that moment because we all heard.
We can debate the entirety of what Moses told us, but this parashah contains another passage that deepens my Jewish life and has guided me on my journey. A little further in our parashah, we read:
12It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea…14No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
Not only do we learn that God spoke to all of us, but that God’s teaching is not far away from you or me; it is right here in my heart. God’s wisdom and teachings are not just for the learned or the smartest. God’s teaching is not incomprehensible or too deep for the common person. God’s teachings aren’t in heaven or on the other side of the sea, but they are right here in my heart and soul and mind. They are within my grasp and yours. All of us heard and when we heard, no matter when that was, God’s teaching became a part of us. We have to figure out these words of Torah. We need to study them and embrace them and heed them and live them.
I will be honest, when I started on my rabbinic journey, I wasn’t deeply steeped in Torah and my Jewish knowledge was marginal. Many of my classmates just knew more than I did about celebrating Jewish life, prayer, and more. Torah Study, personal study, lots of reading, listening, debating, asking questions and involvement enabled my Judaism to grow. What I did was unlock the Torah that was inside me especially as I learned that it was already a part of me. I just didn’t know it. Just because we were all present and just because we understand that the teaching is inside us, within our grasp, doesn’t mean it will filter or travel in your heart, soul, and mind. Being Jewish, living a Jewish life, takes intentionality. We must take the time to study Torah and as much of Jewish teaching as we can. We must take the time to celebrate the cycle of the Jewish calendar and the cycle of Jewish life. It doesn’t happen just because we have a Jewish parent or were given a Jewish name or like to eat lox or blintzes or bagels or kugel. Living a Jewish life, unlocking the Torah inside of us, takes our energy and effort. It doesn’t mean to run off to a yeshiva, but it does mean being active as Jews in our lives. Intentionality.
Dan Nichols’ song has a refrain that uses the words “Kehillah Kedoshah—a holy community.” Kehillah Kedoshah is often represented in a synagogues’ name with the letters Kuf-Kuf or K.K. I am sure many of you have seen it, even if it didn’t register. Judaism isn’t just about the individual, but it is also driven by community. Yes, you can live a Jewish life as an ascetic, but Jewish life and worship often demand that we find community in our lives. Jewish prayer wants a minyan—ten people. Jewish study should be with others in a chavurah or a group or at least with one other. Jewish celebration should be with others as often as possible. Judaism doesn’t lift up the idea of doing “Jewish” by oneself. Being part of a Kehillah Kedoshah is something that should be desired and sought out. It has certainly been a serious part of my life and I love having a Jewish community with which to celebrate, commemorate and support.
My family always belonged to a kehillah kedoshah. I always went to religious school never ever considering stopping before I was confirmed. (My mother wouldn’t have accepted dropping out as an answer.) I was encouraged to participate in youth group. During high school I went to NFTY camp and on a trip to Israel. Most of my friends in high school were Jewish and the same in college. We shared similar values and ideals and celebrations and families. I have to believe that some of you, maybe many of you, who grew up living Jewish lives experienced the same thing. Maybe it is a tribal mentality. Maybe it is a survival mentality, but I found comfort and strength with other Jews in my kehillah kedoshah. Even though saying, “You and I both heard the words of Moses standing together with all Jews of every generation” it wouldn’t be a great first line when meeting a new person. I don’t think it would work as great pick up line on J-date or J-swipe, but it says a lot about who we are. It is part of what draws like people together.
Let me try this one out—how many of you have gone to a function of let’s say 100 people and within a few minutes found yourself talking to what turns out to be the only other Jewish person in the room? A few years ago, I heard this described as “bageling.” Who knows how it happens, but somewhere in the back of that instinctual mind there are things that bring us together. “Atem nitzavim”, we all stood together once and we continue to do the same today. Whether we know it or not, all of us heard the words and those words are in each of us.
On the outside, it is community that drives me. Understanding and knowing that Torah is right there in me is just as critical. The words God spoke weren’t just to Moses or Aaron or the priests or the Levites. The words God spoke are inside you and me. My Jewish soul depends on this.
I want to conclude my High Holy Days journey of looking at verses that guided and strengthened me on my rabbinic journey with one more rabbinic teaching. We’ve looked at being created in God’s image and reminded ourselves to be holy. We’ve asked about being our brother’s keeper and pursuing justice. We’ve reminded ourselves not to be separated from community and the power of a blessing and the importance of the Sh’ma.
This last saying has truly guided me each and every day of my journey and it comes from Pirkei Avot:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:
“Shimon the Righteous was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, ‘The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of lovingkindness.’” I translate this as the study of Torah, on worship and on the performance of deeds of loving kindness or doing Tikkun Olam. These are the three pillars of leading a Jewish life. Can a three-legged table stand on two or just one? I believe that we need all three for a balanced Jewish life, but it isn’t easy.
Just look around—some Jews just focus on study and prayer. Some Jews believe that a Jewish life can be fulfilled by just doing acts of social justice. It is hard to embrace and do all three. As a congregational rabbi, I am given the opportunity for study, worship and good deeds. For most Jews, this isn’t always easy to fulfill or even possible.
If you asked me to decide which pillar is stronger than the others, the answer is that it depends on when you are asking. Worship and prayer can be powerful when officiating at a life cycle event from birth to death. Drawing in the presence of God at such a moment hopefully will enhance everyone’s spiritual experience. But that spiritual experience is also found when I participate in a Habitat build as I use my hammer to enhance God’s work on this planet. At the same time, on Friday nights whether it is 20 or 40 people, when we lift our voices in song at the Shema or the Mi Shebeirach or in singing a niggun or in listening to someone talk about a life on whose shoulders we stand can make worship the strongest pillar. Lest we forget study—how do we preserve and pass down the words that have strengthened us from generation to generation? Whether it is the prophets or the rabbis of the Mishnah/Talmud or from the middle ages or from today, this pillar of asking questions to find answers that only lead us to more questions is a strength of our Judaism.
Our Judaism stands on three things, my Judaism stands on three things—study, worship, Tikkun Olam and I hope to have all three sustain me each and every day on the road ahead. You must seek out your Jewish soul. It is there when you are ready. Make your Jewish life intentional on more days than just today. Remember that each of us is created in God’s image so live your life to make this real. And finally, the world was not created perfect or whole or completed. This is our responsibility as Jews. It is my Jewish mission.
Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.