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Nitzavim-Rosh Hashana 5776/5777-2016

“Israel’s Charge to Impact on the World”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, Moses, on the last day of his life, renews the Covenant of G-d with His people, Israel.

In his opening foray (Deuteronomy 29), Moses rails against the improper behaviors of the Jewish people, and warns them harshly about the specific violation of idolatry. He cautions the people that all the curses and imprecations that G-d had mentioned previously, will befall them if they allow themselves to be led astray and worship idols.

As Moses continues his message, he emphasizes that the actions of the nation will not only impact on the Jews themselves, but also on the non-Jewish world.

G-d will not forgive those who choose the path of sinfulness, and will punish the people for allowing the evil to influence them. When foreign nations and the next generation of Israelites will see a land stricken with plagues, they will behold sulfur and salt, and a conflagration of the entire country. Nothing will grow, nothing will sprout, it will be like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorah, Adma and Zeboiim (Deuteronomy 29:22).

So great will be the destruction, that the nations of the world will call out in wonderment (Deuteronomy 29:23), “Why did G-d do this to this land? Why this wrathfulness and great anger?” The nations themselves will conclude (Deuteronomy 29:24), עַל אֲשֶׁר עָזְבוּ אֶת בְּרִית השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵי אֲבֹתָם, אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִמָּם בְּהוֹצִיאוֹ אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, because they [the Israelites] forsook the Covenant of the L-rd, the G-d of their forefathers, that He sealed with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt.

The gentile nations will actually recognize that the punishments brought upon Israel are because the people worshiped alien gods instead of worshiping the true G-d. All will now recognize that G-d’s anger has now flared out against the land to bring upon it the entire curse, exiling the people with great fury.

The nations of the world also play a role in the great sin of the Golden Calf. When confronted with the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleads with G-d to forgive the people, and presents G-d with the argument, saying, Exodus 32:12, לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, “Why should Egypt say: ‘With evil intent did He [G-d] take them [the Israelites] out [of Egypt] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from off the face of the earth?’”

These are but two examples where Moses invokes the reactions of the nations of the world, when they behold the evil deeds of Israel and their punishments. Clearly, the actions of Israel impact on the entire world!

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in an insightful essay concerning Rosh Hashana, asks a rather obvious question that few have asked previously, concerning a prominent phrase that is recited in the Rosh Hashana liturgy. This phrase, which appears repeatedly in the text of the High Holiday Amidah reads:  וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ ה׳ אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה אֶת יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן הזֶּה, יוֹם תְּרוּעָה, מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם You, L-rd our G-d, have given us with love this day of remembrance, a day of the sounding of the shofar, a holy convocation, a memorial to the exodus of Egypt.

It is surely understandable, says Rabbi Filber, that Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot serve as legitimate memorials to the exodus from Egypt. After all, the exodus, the giving of the Torah and dwelling in booths in the wilderness were directly related to the peoples’ departure from Egypt. Similarly, the prohibition of work (“creative labor”) on the Sabbath is also directly related to the exodus from Egypt, as is specified in the Ten Commandments, where it states, Deuteronomy 5:11-15, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy…and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the L-rd your G-d took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

But what reason is there to regard Rosh Hashana, “the day of the sounding of the Shofar,” as a remembrance to the exodus from Egypt?

Rabbi Filber cites a Midrash Mechilta, explaining why the Torah did not begin with the Ten Commandments. The Midrash compares it to a king who wishes to rule over a people. Before accepting him as their monarch, the people ask him what he has done for them? He then proceeds to build walls for them, bring them food and water and fights battles to defend them. Only then do they agree to make him king. Similarly, only after G-d took the people out of Egypt, split the sea, brought them manna, gave them water and quail, defeated Amalek, did the people hail G-d and accept Him as their King.

Thus we see, that the exodus from Egypt is not simply an historic event of the past that is to be venerated, but rather an ongoing process of liberation that continues to this very day. It was the exodus from Egypt that enabled the People of Israel to accept G-d as the Ultimate Power. Now that the People of Israel are subjects of the Al-mighty G-d, their destiny on earth is to teach the nations of the world to also embrace G-d and to perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.

Therefore, each year, when Jews assess their deeds of the previous year, they must ask themselves, “Did we bring the nations of the world closer to the kingship of G-d?”

That is why, on Rosh Hashana, as Jews stand in prayer in their synagogues, they declare, מְלוֹךְ עַל כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוֹ בִּכְבוֹדֶךָ, G-d, reign over the entire universe, in Your glory, be exalted over all the earth in Your grandeur, shine forth in Your splendid majesty over all the inhabitants of Your world. May every existing being know that You created it, and every creature realize that You created it, and may every breathing thing proclaim: “The L-rd, G-d of Israel is the King and His kingship rules over all.”

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rosh Hashana 5777 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2016.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 from dawn until nightfall.