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a deeper look at the weekly Torah portion


Elchanan Shoff
Rosh Hashanah Parshas Nitzavim Come! Join the dead in prayer!
Not with you alone, do I seal this covenant but with those who are here standing with us here today, and with those who are not here with us today. Dvarim 29:13-14 Hashem made a deal with the Jewish people, both with those present and those who were not there. Targum Yonason1 explains that all the souls that would be born in the future were present at that covenant as well as those who lived in the past. One wonders what sort of covenant might be made with those who have already lived! R. Menachem Azaria of Fano 2 explains that by including them in this covenant along with all the Jews who lived then, and would live eventually, they benefited in that now they would be considered commanded one who fulfilled mitzvos. You see, the Gemara3 teaches us that one who does things that he is responsible to do, has done something even greater than the person who has done extra. Surely, its laudable to do extra things on top of ones obligations, but one must first feed his own family, before he goes out to feed others. One can know what is most important for him to fulfill in his life not by looked to the edges of the earth for extra credit opportunities, but rather by looking to fulfill his obligations. The child is not expected to support a family, and take responsibility for others. But as he grows he reaches a level where this is expected of him. So is it with a nation of people. Those who lived in Israels infancy period were not part of a nation with any real responsibility, but as they entered the land of Israel they became a nation with responsibilities, a much more lofty and mature role. Those who lived before were now part of people with responsibilities, and retroactively, their achievement became more important, so they were there for this momentous occasion.
Dvarim 29:13-14, see also Targum Yerushalmi ad loc. Maamar Hanefesh 4:13 3 Kiddushin 31a
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God, why is that the Jews dont sing Shira (the song of joy and Praise to Hashem usually sung on Holidays) on Rosh Hashanah? asked the Angels. God responded, can it be that a king would sit in justice, with the books of the living and the dead open before him, and the Jews would nevertheless sing Shira? So taught Rabbi Abahu.4

The Chasam Sofer5 lets us in on a secret that he was privy to. He was passed down the tradition, that all holy souls of our ancestors who are no longer living come to the synagogue with us on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and join us in prayer. Thus, he explains, the books of the living and the dead are indeed open before Hashem, in the sense that the dead are actually part of the High Holiday prayers. Since dead people can not praise Hashem, as King David said6, thus Rosh Hashanah is not an appropriate time to sing Shira, and only when the dead rise again, will they sing a great song.

We learn that Rosh Hashanah is a time of sobriety, where we connect to our prayers in the context of all of history, with the dead right next to us, praying, as it were, for their lives to have meaning and fulfillment through our efforts in continuing their missions. Songs are for when we are at a summit, when we are finished with a great task, those who plant in tears, reap in song!7 When the Jews crossed the Red Sea, and watched their enemies die, and things reached their pinnacle, they sang Shira. And when Moshiach comes, we will sing a great song, as the world reaches its great perfection. On our holidays, when we celebrate a spiritual gift, or great religious experience, we sing Shira. But we do not sing Shira on Rosh Hashanah, for there is much too much left to do. Dead people who did not bring the world to its perfection are still waiting to sing Shira for their task was not yet finished; the world is not yet perfect. On Rosh Hashanah, when we are assessed as a world, the dead are as present as those who are alive in some way. All of mankind, from the beginning of time is being judged by Hashem. How are we progressing in the journey from Creation, back in Eden, to Perfection, as the world is meant to be some day? And while we are in that mode, we do not focus on the joy of what we have done, but on the task ahead of us, and how we hope to complete that in the year to come.

Arachin 10b, Rosh Hashanah 32b Drashos Chasam Sofer 350b, s.v. Asher Yeshno 6 Tehillim 115:17 7 Tehillm 126:5
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We can therefore understand why it is that Yom Kippur must follow Rosh Hashanah. Though on some level, it would seem right to clean up our sins before the coronation of the King, and the fresh start of a new year, this is not so. For only once we get back in touch with the whole picture of history, and the connection that we have to all of mankind, only then can we have the clarity to then reassess our methods and see where we can improve in the grand scheme of things. The days of tshuva that lead up to Yom Kippur are the direct outcome of Rosh Hashanah.

It is the people who lived long ago who are part of our unit with us. They really achieve when we achieve, since we are simply one long unit with them. And thus, they were present for our covenant, for it is their covenant. Their action are having more and more impact, as we progress and grow and achieve.

In our high holiday prayers, we address Hashem as he who opens the door to those who knock in tshuva. The Sfas Emes8 cited his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim who explained that those who knock in tshuva are Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov. They opened the door for tshuva, for mankind to return to its destiny, and for people to get back to where they should be. It is through our connection to them, explains the Sfas Emes that we can properly do tshuva. And so they come to join us. They are present with us on the high holidays. They join us, to remind us that the work that we are doing is merely a continuation of the work that the great nation that we are part of has been doing as we have marched through history. We are all in the new year together so much depends upon us. It is not yet time to sing that great Shira, for we are not quite there but that time is coming soon, and then we will all sing together; for even those who we do not see in the shul are there with us in spirit, they opened the doors for us to scoot through long ago, and in some way, they are there encouraging us, praying for us, and urging us forward, in our most important times.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff is and Rabbi of the LINK East Shul in Los Angeles, and the Associate Rosh Kollel of the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK). He is the author of Vaani Bahashem Atzapeh (Jerusalem 2010) in Hebrew on Tehillim, Birchasa Vishirasa (Jerusalem 2012) in Hebrew on Meseches Brachos of the Babylonian Talmud, and his weekly Torah email Paradise reaches more than 1000 people. His book Paradise: Breathtaking Strolls Through the Length and Breadth of Torah was published in October 2012 by Urim Publications, Jerusalem.
Sfas Emes Shabbos Shuva 5636 s.v. bishem, see also Lech Lecha 5658 s.v. Bimidrash Achos, Vaera 5662 s.v. Issa Bimidrash.