Why did we have to stand so long?
Standing. … Just standing.
… grumbled the Israelites, as Moses spoke on and on. This was to be a powerful moment, when God promised, as Moses declared, that the brit (covenant) between God and the Israelite people would last for all time.
Standing. … Still standing.
Was something supposed to happen?
Moses spoke again, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You stand here this day — all of you — before the Eternal your God.” Everyone was included in the brit.
Men and women, and everyone in between. The leaders and the followers, and those who marched to the beat of their own drummers. The citizens and the noncitizens, and those caught in limbo in between. Everyone was included in the brit.
Those with means and those without, and the ever-shrinking group in the middle. Those who lived in the fancy tents in the center and those who lived on the outskirts, and those who lived in decrepit hovels that no one ever wanted to admit still existed. Everyone.
Both those who stood in rapt attention and those who were bored out of their minds, and those who wondered why it was taking God (through Moses) so long to make the point because they just wanted to sit down.
One young man wondered why the people had to stand so long: Was it to ensure we paid attention to what Moses had to say? That we would so completely internalize the message that even as we strayed from God’s path, we would understand that God would be there always to forgive our transgressions and welcome us back?
His friend, a young woman, countered that perhaps we had to stand so long, not so that we would be ready, but rather because God still hadn’t fully decided if God really, really wanted to enter into a covenant for all time with this people.
The young man continued her thought: Yes, we are a cranky people, given to lapses in faith, judgment and trust. We are more apt to undermine one another than to come together for a common purpose. From the trek through the wilderness alone, it is clear that we have elevated kvetching to an art form, turned moralizing into a career move, and sat comfortably while others suffered and struggled.
The young woman wondered if God was grappling with the foolhardiness of expecting a people to take responsibility for their own ethical behavior. Would the people who just endured 400-plus years of servitude and victimhood be able to rise, amid the comfort and wealth to come, to stand unwaveringly for those values most central to Torah?
The young man considered the question and asked his own: When the time came, would we Israelites remain courageous and true …
To chesed, that unending, overflowing, unconditioned, unconditional love of one another, that is the beginning, end and essence of Torah? Would we act with chesed toward those on the other side of the camp, and outside the camp? Those we know and those we don’t? Those we like and those … ?
To emet, speaking the truth, living the truth, even when it was awkward, even when it forced us outside our comfort zone? Would we speak emet to our own people, even when they did not want to hear it? Calling out those who bend the truth to their own purpose or lie through their teeth just because they believe they can get away with it?
To tzedek, that sense of justice that we must pursue both at its ends and through its means, that ignores the color of the skin or the weight of the purse, that demands equality under the law for everyone, since we all — Israelites and non-Israelites — were standing there together listening to Moses.
Was God wondering if, when we were called to stand up, needing to be counted, we would even show up?
“Atem nitzavim hayom,” Moses said.
Darned right. We were standing.
It was a test.
To see if we would actually fulfill our part of the brit.
Just by standing up.
Are you standing up?
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He and his wife, Michelle November, are authors of “Jewish Spiritual Parenting” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015). He blogs at paulkipnes.com and tweets @RabbiKip.