Parasha Nitzavim

The Angel Within Whenever he sculpted a piece of marble, Michelangelo would go to the quarry outside of Florence to see the section of rock from which it came, the cliff from which it was hewn.  Without that larger setting or context he could not appreciate or understand the stone that he was sculpting. He felt that the block of marble in his studio contained within it the figure which the artist needed to liberate.  It was the artist’s job, he believed, to understand the beauty concealed within the stone and to chip away the excess to reveal the hidden form below.  “I saw an angel in the marble,” wrote Michelangelo about one of his sculptures, “and carved until I set him free.” Why am I speaking about Michelangelo?  In a few days, we will be celebrating Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year.  The traditional New Year Greeting is “LeShannah Tovah Tikatevu” – may you be inscribed for a good year.  Notice that we use the word “inscribed” and not “written.”  We associate “inscribing” with the use of a hammer and chisel, and thus the connection to Michelangelo.  The most common metaphor for being “inscribed in the Book of Life” pictures G-d sitting on G-d’s throne, three large book opened in front of Him – one with the names of the completely righteous, one with the names of the completely wicked, and one with the names of those who are neither completely righteous or completely wicked.  For the completely righteous – their verdict is complete and they are sealed immediately in the book.  For the completely wicked, their judgment is complete and their verdict –death – is immediately sealed in the Book. For those who are neither completely righteous or completely wicked – their judgment is suspended between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.  If they are deserving and repent, they are inscribed for life; and if they fail to repent and are undeserving, they are inscribed for Death.   That metaphor, which is taught in the name of Rav Yohanan in the Babylonian Talmud, is a very old tradition.  It may work for some of us, but not for all of us. Is there another way we can understand this phrase, “Leshannah Tova Tikatevu” – may you be inscribed for a good year? One key to a different understanding is to note that the phrase in question – May you be inscribed for a good year – doesn’t say WHO is doing the inscribing!  That leaves open the understanding that we might inscribe ourselves for a good year.  With our metaphorical hammer and chisel, we can work to chip away at the excesses in our behavior that conceal the beauty that lies within each of us.  We can work to smooth away the jagged edges of our personalities that make it difficult for us and others to see our true selves.  We can sculpt our character to remove the envy, the anger, the arrogance, the greed and whatever other defects conceal the beauty of our souls.  Our Torah reading for this week says: “G-d places before us life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” I’ve always been bothered by that because experience tells me that whether we live or die this year is largely out of our hands.  Yes, one can watch ones diet and control some things in your life, but choose life?  A person is standing on a corner waiting to cross the street, and they are hit and killed by a car. Did they fail to “choose life?  A close reading of the Hebrew rescues us from that conundrum. The Hebrew actually says, “Uvacharta BA– Hayyim” – choose IN life. This means that within our life we can make choices that will move our lives forward or hinder us, bless us or curse us. The choices that we make will affect us and our offspring and all who love and care for us.   So, this New Year, let us all resolve to make choices in our lives that will carve away our bad habits and free the angel just waiting there to be released. Shabbat Shalom