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To Stand Before G-d

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A chicken and a cow were walking down the street when they passed a billboard advertising the daily specials at a local restaurant. In bold type, the sign announced: two eggs any style only $1.99. Beneath this line, in different-colored letters, was the message: steak plus two side dishes—only $10.95.

Said the chicken to the cow:

“Look at that—isn’t that something? There, in two simple lines, is our contribution to civilization. I provide the breakfast, you provide the dinner—what would humanity do without us?”

Replied the cow:

“For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment.”

Paradoxical Stance

The Torah reading of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29-30) is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, as we prepare to stand before G-d to be judged for our deeds of the bygone year. These closing days of the year are a time for self-examination, for a thorough assessment of our mission in life and the steps we have taken—and need yet to take—toward its realization.

Nitzavim thus opens with Moses’ statement to the people of Israel: “You stand today, all of you, before G-d your G-d: your heads, your tribal leaders, your elders, your officers, and all men of Israel; your children, your wives, and the stranger in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”

But these verses seem to contain an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, Moses stresses the similitude of the people of Israel, their common denominator in that “You stand today, all of you, before G-d your G-d.” On the other hand, he individually identifies ten classes and types of Jew, from the leader to the water carrier, from the elder to the stranger.

The Torah is demanding from us a seemingly impossible task: to unite as a singular community before G-d, and, at the same time, to emphasize the qualities and talents unique to each individual. But if we stress our commonality, does this not require us to downplay our distinctions? And if we focus on our individual strengths, does this not invariably lead to feelings of variance from, and superiority over, the different other?

Back to the Source

The resolution of this paradox lies in the words, “before G-d your G-d.”

Indeed, when we view ourselves and our place in the community from our own, human perspective, we are compelled to choose between expressing our individuality or accentuating our commonality. A group of individuals might join in a financial endeavor, a scientific project or a humanitarian effort, each contributing of his individual knowledge, expertise and resources. In such a case, what unites them are their differences—the way in which their different talents and capabilities jointly enable the achievement of their goal. Or, a group of people might join to march for a cause, to vote a particular leader into office, to populate a land. In this case, it is not their differences that contribute to their unity, but their commonality as a mass of human beings, all equal in that each is no more and no less than one of the greater number.

But these are all “contributions.” We are lending a part of ourselves to the common cause, whether it is a talent or resource (emphasizing our individuality) or our body and membership (emphasizing our commonality). A “total commitment”—a commitment that embraces every aspect of ourselves—can only come when we stand before G-d, when we transcend our self-perceptions to submit to Him. For G-d is the essence and source of everything we are—of our character as well as our being, of each particular trait we possess as well as the simple and profound fact of our existence.

If we stand before G-d, totally and unequivocally committing ourselves to our Creator and the purpose for which He created us, we will find that our individuality and commonality are not at variance with each other. We will find, for example, that our leadership (for each and every one of us is a “head,” whether of our community, our department at the office, our family, or in some other sphere of influence in which others learn from us) need not be expressed only in “sophisticated,” elitist ways, but also in an attentiveness to the most commonplace areas of life; the rabbi delivering his Rosh Hashanah sermon might, for a change, speak not of global politics but of the “trivial” needs of his community. We will find that the reverse is also true: that when engaged in activities that belong to the “lowliest” of roles—in the wood-chopping and water-drawing chores of daily life—we actualize our loftiest and most sophisticated talents.

But first we must transcend the finite, self-bound perception that distinguishes between our “higher” and “lower” faculties, between our “specialties” and our “commonalities.” First we must stop “contributing,” and make that total commitment.

First, we must stand before G-d.

Based on a public letter issued by the Rebbe in the week before Rosh Hashanah of 5732 (1971) [1]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IX, pp. 462-465.

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