You Standing Ones

11 SEPT 2017 / 20 ELUL 5777

At the outset of Nitzavim we are addressed - from woodchopper to water drawer, all ages, all sexes, all genders, strangers in the camp, both those present in that time and in any time, all of us - as atem nitzavim: you standing ones. From there we are taken through the establishment of covenant, the risks of idolatry, the contradiction of being assured no forgiveness and the comfort of certainly being gathered by God even from the ends of the world that we might be forgiven and return. We are reminded that this Torah is ours to hold onto and ours to teach our children, and we are told of Moses's imminent death. It is so much to take in, and on the surface it seems we all do so standing. Atem nitzavim.

Standing. At this intense spiritual moment, we are named as a group by something we do with our fragile and resilient physical bodies. When we recite Asher Yatzar, the blessing praising the Architect who shaped the human being, we insist on the importance of having the strength to stand before God. Psalm 35:10 teaches, "All my limbs shall say, 'Who is like You, O Lord?" In Midrash Tehillim, an 11th-century exegetical text, the rabbis interpret “all my limbs” quite literally:

With my head, I bend my head and bow down in prayer…And I also wear tefillin on my head. With my neck, I fulfill the precept of wrapping oneself in tzitzit. With my mouth, I praise You, as it says: “My mouth shall speak the praise of Adonai” (Psalms 145:21)…With my face, I prostrate myself, as it says: “God fell down on God's face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12)… With my nose, when I smell spices with it [during the Havdalah blessing said] at the outgoing of Shabbat. With my ears, I listen to the singing of the Torah

We are reminded repeatedly in our tradition that our bodies are the means of our souls being animate in the world both in connection with physical ritual objects and also in terms of the body’s own movements. Our bodies are intrinsically connected with the experience of our souls. 

But what if we cannot stand? What if our bodies, wise and wonderfully fashioned, do lack the physical ability to stand? Regarding the Shemonah Esrei, according to the Shulchan Aruch and Rama 94:6, one who is sick and cannot stand may pray lying down if they are able to have kavana (proper intent). In Proverbs 22:6 we are instructed to teach each person according to their way or ability, and we learn from Isaiah 56:5 that God's house is a house of prayer for all people. Perhaps there are occasions in which our upright souls are standing before God while the bodies that carry them take whatever form they need to.

Today, the physical actions listed in Midrash Tehillim, as well as a number of other body movements, have become an established part of Jewish prayer. When the rabbis of the Talmud refer to prayer, they are almost always referring to the Amidah, literally the Standing Prayer. In synagogues today, standing is invited during some common daily prayers such as Barchu and AleinuNeilah at the end of Yom Kippur, is traditionally recited entirely standing.

Of course, whether we stand or sit is also about custom. Many communities have the custom to stand every time the Kaddish is recited, while some only stand for the Mourners Kaddish, or only when the Torah is moving. Additionally, it is the general practice of Conservative and Orthodox communities not to stand for the Shema with the idea that sitting helps one maintain concentration. In contrast, most Reform communities do stand for the Shema, as to publicly indicate the importance of this prayer to Jewish tradition.

The variations all relate to the same core question: How do we, with our bodies and our souls, best take in and express - best experience our relationship with God? How do we best honor the relationships with God others experience? Perhaps we could broaden the way we think about the concept of standing, of being upright in soul and in body.

Atem nitzavim . . . 

YOU who hold your space,

YOU who occupy this place,

YOU  who abide,

YOU who receive,

YOU who are ready, 

YOU - all of you - who are before Adonai, your God . . . to enter into the covenant.