Jewish Journal

Pay Attention

Parshot Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9 -31:30)

by Allen I. Freehling

Posted on Aug. 29, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Even if the reader is a person who does not regularly attend Shabbat worship services when the Torah is read, the text of Nitzavim will be somewhat familiar, inasmuch as it is offered not only as a reading during the Sabbath we are about to observe, but it is also presented as the Torah text in the midst of the morning of Yom Kippur. So, even the least observant among us, when wending their way to a synagogue to observe the High Holidays, ought to find this material from Deuteronomy to be not at all strange.

In his final days, Moses is reminding the people, whom he has led for 40 years, that there was that unique moment when they gathered together to receive the word of God, and that the message delivered was not for them alone, but for everyone that would follow.

I find myself especially interested in the posture the Israelites assumed when they were receiving God's words, as transmitted via Moses. Our tradition teaches that every man, woman and child who was assembled at Mount Sinai when Moses descended from the summit heard his message while standing at full attention.

That really comes as no surprise. After all, when any of us are in the presence of a truly important person, or when we ready ourselves to be the recipients of a very significant message, it's difficult to imagine that we'd be anything less than completely attentive -- both physically and mentally.

I believe that from this, we are to learn how important it is for all of us to determine what is really vital and what is merely superficial; and then to be completely attentive to the former while letting the latter simply blow away.

Just imagine how much time we waste reading, viewing, listening to, talking and thinking about trash. It's within this context that Moses Maimonides proved to be totally accurate when he declared that most of us are "ignoramuses," not because we are stupid, but because we don't actualize most of our intellects. He was critical of the fact that we choose to be lazy and wasteful of many opportunities to learn and to do.

Nitzavim tells us to pay attention to -- and then to act on -- what's significant, and to ignore anything and everything that isn't.

Another lesson we learn from this text is that the Israelites all stood together, and that successive generations of their progeny -- and that includes you and me -- have a Torah mandate to be part of a unified entity which is accepting of the lessons that are imparted in the Holy Scroll, and that we are ready to use them to positively affect our lives and the lives of each person with whom we interact.

Thus, when I hear some Jews deriding others with whom they may have a disagreement, when I'm in the company of those who insist that they are "more Jewish" than others and when I'm subjected to derision because I've expressed an opinion that seems to be at odds with mainstream thinking, this kind of projected negativity, and an obvious lack of cohesiveness, challenge the demand found in Nitzavim. We are told to stand together -- certainly not as mindless robots, but as discerning individuals who embrace the moral truths found throughout the Five Books -- and to vouchsafe the freedom of will that is guaranteed to all of us in these precious tomes.

So, just as we are to be attentive to the instructions provided to us in the Torah, we need to pay attention -- with unconditional nonjudgmental objectivity -- when we are in dialogue with those who express opinions that are similar to our own, as well as when we are exchanging ideas with those whose opinions and/or orientation are unlike the ones we champion.

After all, not only do they deserve to be heard, but they also may even say something which could be life-altering, if we but take the time to really listen.

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