Our sages have established our calendar so that on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we always read the stirring words from Parashat Nitzavim, which call us into an eternal covenant with the source of life itself. Moshe’s inclusive invitation inspires us as well: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and all your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Dt. 29:9–11). Moshe includes not just old and young, rich and poor, powerful and lowly, but all who “are not with us here this day”, understood in the tradition to refer to those yet to be born. So we, thousands of years and hundreds of generations later continue the covenant, hoping as well that our descendants will positively influence the world thousands of years from now with the best of our Torah, mitzvot and traditions.
This reading, coming toward the very end of the Torah, reminds Jews that we are in a covenantal relationship with the Creator — that is, we have a pact of service. The beginning of the Torah teaches that the principle sign of that covenant, the ultimate way of expressing it, is through the experience of Shabbat. In our evening and morning prayers on Shabbat we recite a passage “V’Shamru”, that speaks of the Shabbat as that signpost that binds the generations in time, over time. As the 20th century thinker Ahad Ha’Am stated: “More than the people of Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the people of Israel.” No matter whether we observe Shabbat in all its halachic minutiae, or in a more flexible manner, our experience of Shabbat binds us together as a people — a people with both a heritage and a destiny.
What is so special about Shabbat? It is an opportunity to take 25 hours, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, to leave behind the pressures of the daily grind and celebrate life and being. Instead of thinking about all the things that tradition has defined as “prohibited work” on Shabbat, focus on all the things that are encouraged on Shabbat: eating, drinking, singing, talking, sleeping, walking, enjoying nature, being with family, engaging in community, learning and loving. It is a time to leave behind the mundane and embrace the sacred, to switch off in order to turn on. With the pressures and speed of 21st century society, we need Shabbat in our lives more than ever and to make it possible is what participating in community is about.
Parashat Nitzavim opens with an invitation for us all to be included in the joys of Judaism and the celebration of life; it closes with a caution: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!” Read just before Rosh HaShanah, Nitzavim prepares us for the questions we will ask ourselves over the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, and encourages us to make life enhancing choices. Celebrating Shabbat just a bit more this week than last is one of the best ways to choose life.