We are not alone; we were present at Sinai

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler wrote, “On [his] first Shabbat in Jerusalem, I was at the  Kotel [Wall] with three other first-year Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students when Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach walked up to us, wished each of us ‘Gut Shabbes,’ kissed us and said, ‘We met at Sinai.’ ”

Carlebach was a teacher and musician. He was known for bringing disenchanted Jewish youth back to Judaism. He was a storyteller and singer. Some consider him to be the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century.

What could this possibly mean? Look at the start of this week’s Torah portion: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God. … I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you, alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day, before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day.” 

Many of you will recognize this passage as one that is also read on Yom Kippur morning. 

Our rabbis taught that every Jewish soul who would ever exist, both by birth and by choice, was present at Sinai. Each of us stood at the base of the mountain to hear and accept the word of the Eternal One. Not only is the Torah and all the teachings relevant and accessible to us, but we, at one pivotal time, stood as one, as a community. 

This portion is telling us that each of us is responsible for the other. We are responsible for helping one another to observe Torah and to watch that no one violates Torah. We are responsible to care for the sick and elderly among us, and we are responsible to celebrate with bride and groom and to educate our children. The responsibility is from birth to burial and every moment in between. Moreover, every soul is included.

Furthermore, we read in “Ethics of our Ancestors” that we are not allowed to separate ourselves from the community. In the Talmud, we read, “When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and be at peace with myself.’ ” Recall the story of Esther. Mordecai tells her not to think she will be saved when the Jewish community is threatened. Think about our prayers. Many must be recited in a community, and we refrain from using I or my. It is we or our.

Talmud: “A man [or woman] to whom a calamity has occurred should make it known to the public, so that many people may entreat God’s mercy for him.” 

Think about the kaddish. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote in “Jewish Wisdom” that “certain prayers, such as the kaddish for the dead, can be recited only in the presence of a minyan of 10  adult Jews. In the absence of such a law, many people who lose a parent, spouse or child might withdraw into their own world  and say kaddish privately. Because of this law, mourners are compelled three times a day to join a community of praying Jews. This helps ensure that they continue to interact with others. Similarly, Jewish law insists that during the shiva, the seven days following the death of a very close relative, people visit the mourning family; this guarantees that the mourners are not alone.”

The Torah portion renews God’s covenant with Israel, but adds the notion of responsibility. Moses is at the end of his life. Perhaps it is at this stage that he sees life with heightened clarity. Perspective and hindsight have broadened his lenses. 

Nitzavim comes from the word “to stand.” We are all standing here together as we stood at Sinai. We are hineni. We are present before God and present before one another. We are not apathetic to one another’s needs, feelings or actions. ATEM — “YOU” numeric value is 441. EMET — truth is 441. We stand together only when we are in truth. 

A story. During the night, a house caught fire. The fire spread rapidly to other houses. Each family ran frantically about, attempting to save its individual possessions. A wise bystander, noticing this, remarked: “You are silly, selfish people. Instead of each one trying to save his own possessions, why don’t you all get together and put out the fire, so that it will not spread any further.”

Hearken to the call you heard at Sinai. Stand in truth. Unite for personal and communal strength.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.