October 5, 2022 | All of You (Yom Kippur 5783)
All of You
Rabbi April David, Yom Kippur 5783
We return. It’s so good to see all of you here today. It’s been a long time since we were together. Of course, COVID sidelined this service the past two years, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m thinking of when we stood together thousands of years ago. Do you remember?
It was out on the plains of Moab, a mild morning with just a bit of dew. The shofar sounded and we gathered, cloaks clean, our sandals full of dust, hungry for companionship and guidance. We were so weary and grateful for even a small break from a nearly endless journey. Do you remember now?
In the Torah portion we read later this morning, Moses gathers the Israelites along the Jordan River. After forty years of wandering, all they wanted was be home. From where they stood, they could not so much see the Promised Land through the morning haze as imagine it hovering, just over the horizon. I’m telling you, you were there, full of longing, just like everyone else.
Moses started speaking; there was silence except for his voice: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem. You are standing here today, all of you, to enter into a covenant with Adonai; you will become a people and Adonai will be your God (Deut. 29:11).
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/You are standing here today all of you.
The Israelites are faced with a serious task; they are there to affirm their place in the covenant. For such a somber gathering, this seems like a silly way to start off. I could say to you, “You are all sitting here today, all of you” and you are here -- from across the city, even across the world, weary, grateful, burdened, perhaps -- but what's the point of telling you something so obvious? Yet it is Moses’ first four words that let us know that we were there, so let’s listen closely.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.
That first word, atem, in Hebrew is a big “you.” You all, (or “y’all” for the Southerners amongst us). Atem includes you. I’m going to tell you how.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.
Nitzavim means standing but not the kind we do all the time, like on the 5 train when there’s no seats left, swaying shoulder to shoulder, scrolling Instagram or just closing our eyes, for a moment. We are on the same train, but in different worlds.
No, nitzavim means standing with intention, with feet weary but souls longing for connection with God and each other.
A midrash reads atem nitzavim not as you stand but as you exist fully present, hearts, minds, sinews aware, united in purpose. We were fully there, standing, reaching out towards each other and God.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/You are standing here today.
Hayom, todaty-- that day, out on the plain, a moment of uncertainty and hope. on a long journey.
For commentator Everett Fox, Hayom means “wherever and whenever” we are.
Or perhaps Hayom refers to the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur. This very day. Today. I’m telling you: Moses is talking to us. We were there.
Here’s why I am so sure.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/You all are standing here today -- kulchem, all of you. Kulchem is extraneous yet it’s the most important word. With it, Moses speaks to everyone and that includes us.
Moses elaborates on kulchem. First, he recognizes the tribal heads, elders, and officials. (Deut. 29:9). That’s exactly who we think would be there - the VIPs, the machers, up in front row, with their tribal staffs and fine clothes -- the bigwigs who sometimes make us feel small. If those ancient Israelites are anything like us, they probably felt intimidated. You know what I mean because you have told me:
Rabbi, I’m kinda scared to go to services. I don’t know anyone.
I’m not Jewish. Are you sure it’s okay to go?
I don’t look like anyone else.”
Rabbi, I hated Hebrew school or,
I got kicked out of Hebrew school (I’m not naming names. You know who you are.)
Rabbi, I don’t know enough.
I’m not a member of the synagogue.
I don’t feel like I belong.
If I had everyone here raise a hand if they had ever felt that way (don’t worry, I’m not going to do it) more than half of you would have your arms in the air. Maybe you would just show me this (hand barely raised) but you feel it like this (arm waving).
It was that way, too, down on the plains of Moab, the important, eager folks in the front, everyone else searching for a place in the middle of that gathering, huddling with a few friendly faces, wanting to be there, but carrying their uncertainties all the same.
Moses knows that so he’s sure to go beyond those we expect.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/all of you
Next we learn that includes, “All the men of Israel.” (Deut. 29:9). Just your average Joes. Not so important but they clearly have a place, if not right up front. But then Moses specifically includes the children and the wives.” (Deut. 29:10). They are there, too: Suckling newborns, infants held by their parents, some sleeping, some wailing. Toddlers digging in the dirt. Children darting between the legs of adults, not paying a lick of attention to anything but their games. The women aren’t used to hearing about themselves. They are rarely mentioned and, even if they are, they’re so busy chasing the kids, making the food, or packing up the household for another shlepp through the wilderness, they might not have noticed. But this time, this time, they stopped what they were doing and stood up straight to listen. Even the children seemed to feel a part of it, too.
Now, Moses could stop there -- he’s mentioned all the Israelites present -- but Moses sees still more people in that eager crowd before him.
We so often look past people who do the important jobs that make life liveable but Moses doesn’t. He specially addresses everyone from the woodchopper to the waterdrawer (Deut. 29:10). And then he keeps going.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/You stand here today all of you.
Next, Moses acknowledges the stranger in the crowd (Deut. 29:10), the folks looking on from the periphery, quite aware of their difference from the rest. With his words, Moses brings the outsider in.
During rabbinical school, I spent some months training as a hospital chaplain. It was back in 2012, in the time of Stop-and-Frisk. That summer, the healthcare workers union, 1199, protested the policy by marching all the way down Fifth Avenue in silence. Even though I wasn’t in the union and my wife was in hospital administration, we decided to go. We leaned against the cool cement wall around Central Park and waited, nearly alone. At the sound of hundreds of marching feet, we came to attention for a few minutes and then they were gone. I didn’t see a single person I knew. But then Monday, making my rounds in the MICU, the unit clerk came towards me. “Hey, I saw you at the march on Saturday.” Bedside the nursing assistant smiled; “You came out for us,” Even in the elevator, someone I didn’t know gave me a nod: “You stood up for us.” Even without a union card and from the sidelines, standing there mattered.
Moses says stranger but we could also hear that ancient word ger, not as outsider but as convert, like our ancestor Ruth. She grew up on the very same plains of Moab where the Israelites are gathered, then told her mother-in-law Naomi “Where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God, my God” (NJPS, Ruth 1:16).
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem/all of you
Moses just keeps expanding the circle of who is included in kulchem/all of you. I’m telling you: you were there, too.
Moses says: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us today with those who are not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:14)
Moses speaks not just to the weary, hopeful Israelites but to all the generations yet to come. Every Jew who would ever exist congregated there on the dusty plain of Moab. Some say it was the mere idea of those who would come later that was present, but I know it’s more than that. According to a midrash, even though the bodies weren’t created yet, the souls of every Jew -- their essences, their deepest parts -- joined in the covenant at that moment. Tradition is very clear that includes the ger, the convert, too.
Do you remember it now?
My daughter was born on Rosh Hashanah. On her birthday and all through the year, she loves to hear the story of her birth and delights in all the details:
how big my tummy was before she came out,
The way she would kick (and kick and kick) when I was trying to sleep,
how we woke, erev Rosh Hashanah, knowing she was on the way and couldn't go back to sleep,
the hours of labor,
A suspenseful silence and then her very first cry, a shofar calling us to attention
That day was the defining moment of her life (ours, too). Every fiber of her being -- from her perfect baby toes, to that one shock of black hair on her head, to the faint whistle of her baby breath-- all of her was fully present in that moment ready for what would come.
And she doesn’t remember a thing about it. She only knows because we tell her.
Moses told you. I’ve told you. We will tell each other again and again
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem
You are standing here, every single one of you (look around slowly). You were there on the plains of Moab…and you are here today.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem
You are standing here today all of you -- body, mind spirit -- fully yourself, fully part of this gathering and fully a part of the Jewish story.
1Eichah Rabbah 3:1.
2According to Rashi, it is the day of Moses’ death.
3Commentary on Deuteronomy. Accessed on Sefaria.com.
4Rashi on Deuteronomy 29:9.
5By ancient standards, men, women, and children would constitute the entire group.
6Rashi on Deuteronomy 29:14.
7Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 29:14.
8Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Nitzavim, 8.
9Bekhor Shor on Deuteronomy 29:14.