Tora Thoughts: Parashat Nitzavim 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Two Cycles Integrated
Parashat Nitzavim is read every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. There are different explanations about why we do so.
First of all, there are some verses in our parasha about repentance/return (Teshuva), one of the main topics of the High Holidays. For example, “And you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day, you and your children. Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you” (Deuteronomy 30:2-3).
Second, Parashat Nitzavim begins with an allusion to the eve of the Day of Judgment. It says, “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel” (Deuteronomy 29:9). As you may know, Rosh Hashana is also known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, because God judge every living creature on this day.
Third, the numerical value of the Hebrew words “You are all standing this day” is 694. It is the same value as the phrase laamod lislichot, or “To stand for Slichot.” Slichot are the penitential prayers on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana (or the previous one, if Rosh Hashana falls too close to Shabbat).
Finally, Parashat Ki Tavo, the parasha that comes right before Nitzavim, ends with a famous and long list of curses for those who don’t follow God’s commandments. One of the traditional wishes for the new year is, “May this year and its curses end; may the new year and its blessings begin.” In order to fulfill this wish, our sages established that at least one parasha should be read after parashat Ki Tavo, so we pause between the reading of the curses and the beginning of the new year. Parashat Nitzavim, as already said, is the one that comes after Ki Tavo. After that, Rosh Hashana can begin!
As you may know, the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah is not related to the Hebrew Calendar. In fact, when a holiday falls on Shabbat, the weekly reading is not followed that week so that our reading can be appropriate for the particular holiday. Even so, the sages were able to find hints in the weekly cycle that relate it to the calendar. They wanted to find meaning in the different rituals that depend on different cycles. This way, they were to be able to link the cycle of the Hebrew calendar to the cycle of the annual reading of the Torah.
I believe this is a difficult but very rewarding task! Isn’t it beautiful that the Torah reading of this Shabbat is related to what will happen only one day afterwards, during Rosh Hashanah?
We all follow different cycles during the year, like the school calendar (those who have children or those who work in education), the calendar of the country we live in, the congregational calendar, the Jewish calendar, the seasons, and others. These calendars are not necessarily related to each other, and, as a matter of fact, don’t really need to be related. However, how beautiful it is when we are able to make connections between them! For example, we all love when our children have no classes the same day we are off work, or when Rosh Hashanah marks (almost) the beginning of the school year. We feel fulfilled when the different calendars/cycles we follow during the year are somehow integrated, at least partially.
That is exactly what our sages were able to achieve when they discovered in the Torah meaningful hints to the Hebrew Calendar. They helped us to integrate two different aspects of the regular Jewish life that, in principle, are not connected. May we be able to follow the sages’ creativity, wisdom, and willingness, so we also are able to link the different cycles of our lives.