Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, 5771, Charlene Stern

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech
Sep. 24, 2011 / 25 Elul 5771
Charlene Stern

Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30

A Drasha in Honor of Ben Stern's 90th Birthday

 Shabbat Shalom.

“When you pray, pray that you won’t be tested,” is a statement that has haunted me ever since I heard it said. Although I’ve since found out the speaker spoke it in a very different context and with a different meaning, than what I took it to mean – the words, themselves, led me into the hard questions of today’s two Torah portions.

“When you pray, pray that you won’t be tested.”

Really, really, can there be such a thing as a human life that is not tested?

The Torah portion today tells us: “Choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring “

What is meant by “Choose life”?

Acording to Rashi, doing “good” means choosing life.

Seven times the word “life” appears in this Pareshah Nitzavim. Who knows seven?

I know seven:

  • Did my Mother not choose life, when she, left the Lodz Ghetto at night, removed her yellow star, took the train to another town, purchased meat, hid it under her coat and then circled around the Lodz Ghetto, evading Nazi guards to bring meat to her family to sell and help sustain them? And then she did this two more times.
  • Did my Dad not choose life, when having escaped the Nazis and living safe in Russia, he heard bad news about his family’s dire situation back in Poland, and then crossed back across the borders; evading the Russian, Polish and German army to stand with his family in their struggle for survival?
  • Did my Mother, not choose life when in Auschwitz/Birkeneau, she risked her life to escape her work detail, hid her star, hunted for food in bombed out basements, knocked on doors and begged for food to bring back and share with others?
  • Did my Dad not choose life in Auschwitz/Birkeneau, when he stood guard outside a potato storage building, to protect a fellow prisoner who still could and wanted to daven his daily prayers?
  • Did my Mother, not choose life, when after the Holocaust and after surviving near death from typhus, against her American’s doctor’s advice, chose to become pregnant as soon as she could, and start a family?
  • Did my Dad not choose life, when he whispered, night after night in Auschwitz/Birkeneau to fellow prisoners – “Stay with me, just one more day, just one more day, don’t leave me, I need you; be with me”
  • Did my parents, not choose life when the Nazis in America decided to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1976 and my Father rose up during the Yom Kippur sermon when their rabbi said “stay home, close your shades, they’ll come and be gone” – My Dad stood up, shouted out; “Rabbi, not here, not now, not in America, not again. We will not let them march.” And because of what my Dad, with other leaders did, in the end, the Nazis did not march in Skokie.

In today’s second portion of the Torah, Moshe tells Joshua “Be strong and bold.”

According to J.H. Hertz In the book of Exodus, Miriam, Mose’s sister, didn’t just “stand” by the river watching the basket that held her baby brother, in the Nile River; she “took her stand”. Today, each of us in our congregation, like Miriam, need “to take our stand” - For good, for life - for our everything depends upon it, our stand; for our sake and for the world.

Today’s two pareshot, Nitzavim and Vayyelech, share the root word, y-tz-v, meaning – firmly planted, unshakeable, committed.

I stand on the shoulders of giants, my parents and my grandparents and theirs. They are testimonies that life, as much as we want it to be or pretend it to be, isn’t without its tests. Each of us here in this congregation are standing today at the edge; we cannot own the future we want until our synagogue’s financial future is secure. There is no “stand-by” option to get to our future destination.

Over 21 years ago, a full generation ago, I heard a whisper and so did others, to come together as a community and fulfill our hearts’ yearning for a spiritual home. A dozen of us took our stand, by sitting around a kitchen table and began this incredible congregation. More joined us – with great joy and sacrifice we built this community.

We went through our “Red Sea” to purchase this home of our own – every name etched on the glass in the Social Hall acknowledges those who took their stand to buy this building, our home. We are blessed with the gifts of amazing rabbis who teach and inspire us on our life journey. Now each of us must take our stand, whether for the first time or the tenth time, to continue to live as a congregation, financially secure in the future we want, or the dream we created together will die. After wandering in our own spiritual dessert we found each other and somehow, with each of us sacrificing together we built this amazing congregation for us, for our children, for each other’s children. Now, we face the test of our existence, and the opportunity to secure this dream for generations to come. We must, like Miriam, take a stand now, because without each of us, this precious community will die. This is our test, and we are now at the edge.

There was a time in my life when I stood on a cliff facing a terrifying challenge ahead of me. I shared my deep fear with my oldest daughter, Lorie. She replied with words that took my breath away and then took me forward and through. She said “Mom, take your fear and use it as fuel”.

Nobody would wish for the circumstances or the tests that my parents survived - and through it all they took their stand. Each life is lived in different circumstances and we are free and responsible to make our choices, to stand by, or, to choose life and do good; each of us in our time on earth.

When I look at my parents here today, who have created four generations of family, who came through what will be viewed as the most horrifying and tragic chapter in all of Jewish history, who chose life with every chance they were given, I pray that each of us today will be inspired to take our stand. Unlike Moses facing his impending death, exhorting Joshua to be strong and bold, we have a choice to make and we will see our future with our own eyes; the future we want to happen. Our time to choose is frighteningly short. May we all take our stand, be bold, choose life and secure our financial future, this home and this community, so we may live on together to do good.

When my parents put together the invitation for today’s celebration, there was some debate. Not about the gifts my Tatashe (dear father) didn’t thank GD need – all of you being here today is the richest gift to him, my Momeshe (dear mother) and to my family – but his request that if “you want, make a donation to the Congregation’s building fund.” My parents have taken their stand for life, a Jewish life they were almost denied. Can we stand by now and deny ourselves the mitzvah of taking our stand, through this test in our life, to continue our community and our faith? Is there a life that isn’t tested? And what is a life worth that ignores what is required to do? Today, I too need you, be with me, don’t give up, take your stand, here with me, with us.”

Tatashe, may you, who have reached 90 years this week in a miracle that defies any explanation, continue to be blessed with health and strength to choose life. And to both my Tatshe and Mamashe, “Tsu a hundert un tsvontsik mit gezunt”.

May my parents who chose life together, continue to live together in health; may the blessings they have been given bring them deep and lasting satisfaction. May the example of their lives, continue to teach and inspire us. It is the choices they made to live and do good in their lives that they give to us; their children, grandchildren, great- grandchildren, family and friends and to every one here in this amazing loving congregation, Netivot Shalom. May we learn from them and all those who gave us life, to take our stand now- so we may each live lives that mean more – and “be bold and strong enough” to ensure that what we cherish most, lives on beyond our years here, on earth.

“Choose life, so that you will live.” Amen