Sunday, September 11, 2011

My derashah from the Shabbos after September 11th

This is the derashah I delivered on Shabbos Parshas Netzavim, September 17, 2001. There are elements I would present differently were I writing it today, but in the interest of authenticity I'm leaving it as is:

I said something on Tuesday night [the night of September 11, at a Tehillim session; see here] , which was not quite true. Of course the Morning Call would quote one line out of a speech and it would be the one line about which I had mixed feelings. I said, “This is not a funeral; America yet lives.”

America yet lives, but thousands of people are dead. America yet lives, but thousands of families have been shattered. America yet lives, but a nation is suddenly terrified at the thought of entering a tall building or entering an airplane. So isn’t it a funeral for the dead? Isn’t it a funeral for a nation which is no longer whole?

On further reflection, though, the answer must be that this is not a funeral, and the answer comes from this week’s Torah portion - Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem, You are standing here today, all of you.

What is the context for this verse? It comes on the heels of a description of horrible punishments which Gd promises he will bring against the Jews if they stray from His covenant. It comes right before a description which is eerily similar to Tuesday’s pictures – Gafris vaMelach Sereifah Kol Artzah, Ash and salt will burn the entire land. Moshe says: Don’t panic, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You’re still standing.”

But how can Moshe say this? Moshe was addressing a group which was a She’eiris, which was a remainder from massive destruction. Thousands died after the Golden Calf, thousands died after the incident with Midian, a generation had been wiped out after the Spies – so how could Moshe say to them, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You’re all still standing?” It’s manifestly false! Most of them were not still standing, at all! Most of them died in the desert!

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning of the word “Nitzavim,” which we translated loosely as “standing.” Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic commentary to the Torah, renders “Nitzavim” as “Kayyamim.” “Kayyam” doesn’t refer to ‘standing,’ in the physical sense; “Kayyam” refers to survival, to endurance. When Moshe says “Atem Nitzavim,” he is saying, “You have Kiyyum,” a lasting existence.

Rav Dovid Kviat points out a similar use of the verb root, “Nitzav.” Yosef had a dream in which he saw himself and his siblings as sheaves of wheat. All of the other sheaves were bowing to his sheaf, and his sheaf is described as “Kamah Alumasi veGam Nitzavah,” “My stalk stood, and was also Nitzavah.” If “Nitzavah” refers to standing, the word is redundant! “It stood and it also stood?!” No – Yosef is saying, my sheaf stood, and endured, and will endure forever. That is the meaning of “Nitzav.”

The Baal haTurim throws in another, similar use of the root of “Nitzav.” The Jews assembled at Sinai, and we are told, “Vayisyatzvu beSachtis haHar.” “They stood at the bottom of the mountain.” They stood at Sinai, yes, but more than that, they committed themselves to an eternal stand, to a covenant with Gd. Their acceptance of Torah rendered them eternal.

In fact, the word “Nitzav” shows up as a base for another word which is, unfortunately, familiar to most of us. How do you say “gravestone” in Hebrew? A Matzeivah. A Matzeivah is a monument, an eternal mark.

Moshe says to the Jewish people, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem.” Not “All of you are standing here,” because not all of them were standing there. But “All of you are eternal,” are part of an enduring whole.

What makes the Jew eternal? The answer is also in this morning’s Torah reading – it’s the Torah they accepted at Sinai, but it’s also something extra.

Moshe says to the Jewish people (29:28), “HaNistaros LaShem Elokeinu,” “the hidden deeds are for Gd to deal with,” “veHaNiglos Lanu Ulevaneinu Ad Olam,” but public acts are for us and our children to take care of, forever – Moshe and the Jewish people committed themselves here, as a nation, to the concept of Arevus, and that Arevus is what makes us eternal.

What is “Arevus?” “Arevus” means a mixture, it means joint responsibility. A co-signer on a loan is called an “Arev.” A mixture containing various inseparable elements is an “Irbuvya.” We are Arevim, we have joint responsibility for each other, every Jew has a responsibility for every other Jew. This isn’t meant to be chauvinist against the rest of the world; it’s a family covenant that we accept an extra level of responsibility for each other.

This extra layer of responsibility has important practical ramifications. Rav Soloveitchik held that this joint responsibility is what makes one Jew able to perform a Mitzvah on behalf of another Jew. For example, I can make Kiddush and fulfill the Mitzvah for everyone who says, “Amen.” Why does that work? Because my responsibility isn’t over and done when I complete my Mitzvah; my responsibility includes making sure that everyone else gets done with their Mitzvos. That’s the concept of Arevus.

This is also the source for the concept of Ahavas Chinam, the idea of baseless love. I have a responsibility to love each and every other Jew. Why? What if they haven’t done anything for me? What if I don’t know them? Doesn’t matter – we are part of this contract.

That's the agreement the Jews signed in this morning’s Torah reading, and that’s what made them “Nitzavim,” enduring. When the Jews created a nation – and that’s what they were doing here – they also united themselves with all of their descendants. That verse I just read, about the hidden and public acts, concludes, “veHaNiglos Lanu Ulevaneinu Ad Olam,” the public acts are for us and for our descendants forever – we are all one, across the generations.

And that’s how Moshe could stand before the Jewish people, a tattered remnant which had survived fire, famine, drought, war and plagues, and say, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You are all Nitzavim today.” They weren’t all still alive and breathing – but they were all enduring, all eternal, with the Torah they had accepted and their joint responsibility for each other.

We are still standing, too – as part of America, and as Jews, we are still here. It’s been an awful year, a lifesize nightmare, from stones, firebombs, car bombs, and mortar attacks, to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have lost friends and relatives; we hold out hope that more will make it out of the rubble, or turn up in hospitals. Our confidence is shaken, our certainty that “It can’t happen here” is gone for now – but Atem Nitzavim, but we stand as part of an enduring nation, with a commitment to Torah and a commitment to Joint Responsibility, and a commitment to build a better year.


  1. What is lacking here is the recognition that faithful, religious, believing Muslims (not fanatics--rather simply belivers in the simple meaning of the Koran) attacked the Jewish people and America and Western civilization. Moses already had an answer for that. "Call to them for peace; and if they don't accept people, then give it to them over the head." (or something like that)

  2. Adam-
    Where would that fit into this derashah?

  3. OK --you are right that it would not have fit into the drasha and the drasha in itself was fine. I really was speaking more from the context of the State of Israel and how I have been upset for a very long time how they deal with these types of issues. (Until Sharon every act of terrorism was called an obstacle to peace and appeasement was the policy.)
    But I do agree that in America there was simply nothing much one could have done to make a difference. George Bush decided to walk down the road of appeasement and nothing you could have said would have made a difference. Still I do have one point that I think is relevant. Rabbis just don't seem to be able to give guidance or when they do it always seems to come out on the wrong side of justice. Here is a case where it should be clear that America was attacked. and this was not some random event but part and parcel of a three pronged attack against America, the Jewish people and western civilization. One by violence, the other by stealth and the other by penetration from inside. We are at war with determined and vicious enemy and this should have been made clear.