More the Stranger: Returning to the High Holidays and Sinai

Yesterday I got a very sweet message from a childhood friend who had recently lost his mother. He wrote:

I am writing to let you know that I am thinking about you these High Holidays regarding spending your second High Holidays without your Abba. It is very hard for me to think that this is the first year I don’t get to wish my Ima a Shana Tova. Please know that he was so proud of you, he loved you so much, and you have been and always will be to your parents, an exemplary son! Love you my friend! Happy New Year!

I called him right away. Between the years and miles between us I realized that I just needed to hear his voice and thank him. Today I am allowing his words to sink in and I think about who I am this year as compared to last year.

I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before HaShem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean by “whoever is not here”? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Thinking about the note from my friend I wanted to offer another reading of what the Torah meant by “whoever is not here”. 

Am I the same person I was last year this time? Last year my father’s passing was all so fresh. Last year was filled with many firsts without him. This year Yizkor will not be a new thing. It is possible that “whoever is not here” is not referring to future generation that have yet to be born, but instead it might be referring to future versions of the people that were actually “standing here today” at Sinai. The covenant was not limited to those people in that state of mind at that moment.

It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “ No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we continue to evolve in its meaning and demand relevance from revelation. When we return to Sinai we are invited to welcome the inner “stranger” 36 times.

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