The Torah portion the week before Rosh Hashanah starts with the words: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You all, are standing before God today. As important as standing before God may be, the primary lesson has little to with God and much to do with man. Mankind collectively stood before a deity, and in doing so removed their class distinctions and hierarchy, treating everyone as equals. The men, women, and children stood shoulder to shoulder with converts and slaves in total subservience to a higher authority.
One of life’s uncomfortable truths is that racism, sexism, and other biases are rampant in all religions and cultures. As much as we would like to deny its existence, global events of the past few weeks must heighten our awareness. Just as Anti-Semitism is disheartening to Jews, other cultures and races feels equally despondent when venomous diatribes are heaped upon them solely due to the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. We are all appalled by the horrific acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but we must also concern ourselves with the day to day occurrences that we almost accept as normal. A few days ago a group of Jewish children still wearing their school uniform were refused entry into a London sporting store. They were told by a security guard, “no Jews permitted.” Yet as hurt as we may be, our sensitivity towards any anti-Jewish propaganda should heighten our awareness to any agenda that denigrates, derides, or harbors ill will to all humanity.
On Rosh Hashanah, which is also referred to as a day of judgment, I choose to focus on our personal attitudes. These are days when we are held accountable for our iniquities. The sages teach that God follows our lead in his judgment of us. If we are compassionate and understanding of others then the Almighty will favor us with compassion and understanding. If we give others the benefit of doubt, then He gives us the same benefit.
Rosh Hashanah is also the time of year that a broader segment of the Jewish community attends services. Some may be unfamiliar with synagogue decorum and practices. Some may not have purchased a ticket (god forbid) or may be oblivious that there are set seats and unintentionally sit in your reserved seat. It is so easy to make someone feel unwelcome and cause their spiritual journey to stop in its tracks. A few years ago I was in Teaneck for Pesach and attended various prestigious synagogues. Although I am fairly comfortable in shul, I was made to feel rather uncomfortable. During the entire eight days, not a single soul acknowledged my presence by saying hello or good yom tov. It was as if I didn’t exist. I could only imagine how I would have felt if this was my first experience with Orthodox Judaism. Certainly it would have been my last.
This year we will once again offer an explanatory service that caters to the wider community. I am hoping that hundreds of people will enter our building, many of whom may never have been to an orthodox shul. Yet in opening our shul to the wider community, the rabbi, president and chairman will have less time to schmooze and interact with our regular attendees. A smile or a word of welcome can do wonders to ease their fear and trepidation. Our patriarch Abraham is the central figure of the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah; he was the person best known for welcoming strangers regardless of their appearance and religious persuasion. How beautiful would it be if we could collectively emulate those values?
Atem Nitzavim refers to this time when we stand together and welcome Jews from all walks of life. It is a time when instead of being judgmental we are open minded and accepting. It is a time when if we have to admonish faults, let them be only our own. Well, I really cannot comment on anyone other than myself, but if I were to look honestly at all my faults I wouldn’t have enough time to judge anyone else.
Shabbat Shalom, Ktivah V’chatimah Tova, and a healthy and happy New Year,
Rabbi Jack Engel