Parashat Nitzavim: We are blessed with choices, if not control

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is almost upon us.

It is that time of year when we look back over the past year and wonder what the next 12 months will bring. Looking forward raises our awareness of how little it is over which we have any control. 

As the poignant prayer Unataneh Tokef, recited only on the High Holy Days, reminds us, we know not “how many will pass on, and how many will be born; who will live, and who will die; who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end … who will be at peace and who will be troubled … who will be brought low and who will be raised up.” Perhaps this is why Jews the world over flock to the synagogue. Meditation and prayer can aid in dispelling the helplessness that feeling out of control can generate.

It is during the High Holy Days that we are also most acutely aware of the choices we have made over the past year. We take a moral inventory, wherein we account for our debits and credits in the manner in which we have behaved, in the faithfulness we have demonstrated in our relationships, both human and divine, and we tweak our plan for the next year in order to improve. The High Holy Days have little meaning if there is nothing that we can control, if there are no choices that we can make.

So it is that Rabbi Hanina taught: Everything is in the hands of Heaven — except for the fear/awe of Heaven. (Megillot 28a) This fourth-century sage understood that while human beings do not have control over most things that occur in the universe, there is one area in which we do: We are able to choose, and we make thousands of choices each day. Some are of little consequence in the big picture; others are of major consequence to ourselves and to others. 

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As American Jews, we are acutely aware of the power to choose this year, an election year. Rabbi Hanina recognized that while God controls the universe, we control how we act, how we think and in what we believe.

The Torah portion for this week, Nitzavim, reminds us that we are all part of a tradition that is larger than ourselves. It reminds that we have the tools with which to make good choices, choices that are life affirming and that contribute to making our little corners of the world better. It also recalls that there is power in making choices for good and for ill, for life and for death. This Torah portion is always read on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah, perhaps because it reminds us of the power of choice. We become more aware that what we do matters and is often followed by consequences, even when those are not immediately apparent.

Parshat Nitzavim urges us to “choose life,” but it cannot force us to do so. In the end our actions, our beliefs, our choices are totally under our control. Indeed, everything may be in Heaven’s hands, but choices we make on earth are totally in ours.

Shabbat Shalom! Leshanah Tovah Tikatevu! May you be inscribed for a good, sweet year!