Sermon Parshat Nitzavim
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Do any of you remember a film from about 35 years ago called "Being There"? It starred Peter Sellers and Melvyn Douglas—who were both Jewish, by the way—and was based on a novel by controversial Holocaust survivor Jerzy Kosinski. “Being There” was about a mentally challenged middle aged man trained as a gardener who finds himself, accidentally, suddenly enshrined as the economic and social guru of the president of the United States and a global media icon. It's about being in the right place at a particular time, you know, being there. You could say that two other films, Woody Allen's Zelig and the classic Forrest Gump were more or less modeled on Being There, fine examples of how sometimes just showing up is all that matters.
We see many examples of this phenomenon in our own lives: people who seem to succeed just by being in the right place at the right time. It's certainly not true that most of us are just taking up space in this world, for everyone is created in the image of God, but there are times when you do wonder a little bit about whether some folks have achieved great heights simply by showing up.
But perhaps this isn't the right approach to the question of what it means to simply be there. Without venturing too far into Zen Buddhism—or, as we say on the Too Jewish Radio Show, Zen Judaism—perhaps we should explore what simply being present, truly present, can mean in our world.
For example, God's own name, the Tetragrammaton, the holiest name for the Holy One, is Yud Hay Vav Hay—a name made up of the past, present, and future tense of the Hebrew verb “to be.” As the hymn Adon Olam puts it, hu hayah, hu hoveh, v'hu yihyeh—God is, God was, God will be. The essential quality of God, the holiest description of the Creator of the universe, is existence—that is, presence. God is, and while that might not be enough of a tangible depiction for some, it is a central element of God's identity. Ehyeh asher ehyeh, God tells Moses: I will be what I will be, I am what I am. If that is God's primary nature, being there must be pretty important.
This weekend we are celebrating the final Shabbat of the year, which means that our Torah portion is one of the great sections of the entire year, Nitzavim: you stand here today, all of you, the oldest to the youngest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most famous to the humblest, the leaders of your community and the strangers visiting with you. You are all part of the covenant with the Lord your God. You, and every other generation to come who will be descended from you. This great berit, this covenant affirms that you will be God's people, and God will be your Lord.
This universal covenant affirms that we are part of a profound and eternal tradition, a connection to our ancestors that will be carried forward to our descendants. Each of us present tonight, every one of us who will join together on Sunday and Monday for the new year of Rosh Hashanah, all of us are part of this remarkable compact. It is an extraordinarily democratic and egalitarian agreement with God, a berit shared with everyone regardless of gender or age: children and women stand with men, not always the case at the time of the Torah, or even today.
So it's a very special covenant. But what is the content of the mitzvah that we are now to observe? That is, besides just being there, or here, what are we actually supposed to do?
At the climax of our Torah portion we are told ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi m'tzav'cha hayom, lo nifleit hi mimcha—Look, this mitzvah that I command you today is not too awesome for you, and it's not beyond your reach. It's not in the heavens that you should say "Who among us can go up to the heavens and take it for us and teach it to us so that we may do it?" It's not across the sea that you should say "Who among us can cross over the sea and bring it back to us so that we may do it." No, it's very close to you, already in your mouth and in your heart to do it.
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, "So the Torah is not somewhere else. It's already in us. We're made of it… Torah is already coded into our protoplasm, our DNA. And that's why it feels so good to live by the Torah, the way of all being: we're just doing what we've been designed for from the very beginning."
Perhaps the mitzvah that Nitzavim speaks about is no more than becoming aware of the presence of Torah in our midst—or, more precisely, of the presence of God in the here and now. In this season we prepare for our Teshuvah, our return and repentance. But if God is here right now, then Teshuva is a way of becoming aware that Torah is in our mouths and hearts. And perhaps teshuvah simply means God saying, "Return to Me, again become aware of Me always being present in your life."
Our Christian friends speak of something called the "Ministry of presence." It's the way in which we bring consolation to those who are terribly ill, or severely wounded by life, at a time when words fail. We help solely by being present. By being there. For when we are there for them, we are truly living out the notion of being created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our presence reminds them of God's presence in their lives. Just as we are there, God is there.
Even when we are not in crisis, we still need those reminders.
And so, in this season of teshuvah, we seek to be reminded of God's presence in our lives. Ruth Brin has a beautiful poem entitled "A sense of Your presence."
Among our many appetites There is a craving after God. Among our many attributes There is a talent for worshipping God. Jews who wandered in the deserts beneath the stars Knew their hearts were hungry for God. Jews who studied in candle-lit ghetto rooms Thirsted longingly after God. In tent or hut or slum Jewish women prayed to God. But we who are smothered with comfort Sometimes forget to listen. Help us, O God, to recognize our need, To hear the yearning whisper of our hearts. Help us to seek the silence of the desert And the thoughtfulness of the house of study. Bless us, like our ancestors in ancient days With that most precious gift: a sense of Your presence. Brush us with the wind of the wings of Your being. Fill us with the awe of Your holiness. We, too, will praise, glorify, and exalt Your name.
May we come to understand what being there really means, in these coming days of Awe. And may we be blessed with the awareness of God's permanent presence in our own lives, and our own share in creating holiness.