We have a certain fascination with large crowds. From attendance at ball games to climate strikers in Foley Square, we often focus on the numbers of people who show up en masse. The larger the crowd, the more excited we may be about participation. I would like to offer a corrective. The critical question is not how many showed up but with whom did you stand and why?
Torah’s parshat Nitzavim begins by describing who has gathered to affirm the covenantal relationship with God as the Israelites are about to enter their promised land. Who is there? “You stand this day, all of you, before God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.” Deut. 29:9 -10. Not only those present, but also “those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” Deut. 29:14. Talk about crowd size! This gathering includes all souls that have passed and all lives yet to be born.
God intends for us to gather to confirm the values of this covenantal relationship. We are admonished not to follow one’s own heart. To be concerned with one’s self is blasphemous. Rather we are commanded to love God, to walk in Godly ways, and to keep God’s rules. And we best honor the covenant when we act in holy community. The “reward” offered is that we may thrive and increase, and be blessed.
As we prepare to gather for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many of us will focus on the crowd size. Perhaps the room will be packed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and it will be hard to find a chair. Maybe the crowd size will be down and you will bemoan the loss of membership units. Let’s put that numbers discussion aside.
I suggest new numbers for these High Holidays to focus on the values you affirm by gathering together as a community in prayer. Count the number of blessings in your life. Calculate the times you failed to act in Godly ways. Tally up the good deeds you did for others. Reckon the times you followed your own heart to the disadvantage of others.
And when we stand together in prayer, as you contemplate self-improvement, devote your intentions so that your teshuva is not only for your own sake but for all those who are not even alive yet that day. Stand together as a holy community for the purpose of creating a better you and a better world.
Rabbi Evan Krame