Standing at Attention
We all need to pick our issues and take a stand.
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In 1991, the country music star Aaron Tippin topped the charts with a song about a man who grows up poorer but much wiser because of the decisions of his father:
"He'd say you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything,
You've got to be your own man not a puppet on a string."
This week's Torah portion, Nitzavim, begins with the words: "Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem"--You stand today before Adonai Your God. The Israelites are standing on the border of Israel, preparing to enter the Land and create their own nation. The Hebrew word used here for "standing" is nitzavim, which is significant because of its rarity in the Bible. The more common biblical word for standing is omdim, from the verb omeid. Both words indicate standing of some kind, but the use of nitzavim is unusual and thus noteworthy.
Nitzavim and Omdim
There are two biblical episodes in which both words appear. In our parashah for example, the word omeid is used shortly after the verse cited above when the Israelites stand to accept God's covenant: "I make this covenant not with you alone but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai your God and with those who are not with us this day" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). In this instance, omeid indicates standing to receive--the Israelites are waiting to accept the covenant. This passive standing differs from the imminent action implied in the nitzavim verse cited above, in which the Israelites appear coiled to launch themselves across the border.
Another example of these two words being used in the same episode occurs in Parashat Lekh L'kha. As Abraham sits at the entrance of his tent, three visitors are nitzavim alav--standing near him (Genesis 18:2). These are the visitors who foretell of Sarah conceiving a son. They had come to Abraham's tent with a purpose. When Abraham stands by and watches the three visitors eat, the word used is omeid (Genesis 18:8). Again, omeid seems to indicate some passivity while nitzavim indicates action and purpose.
Rabbi Miriam Carey Berkowitz furthers this distinction when she compares the phrase "atem nitzavim" of our parashah with "vateitatzav," which appears in reference to young Miriam standing on the shores of the Nile watching her brother float in a basket (Exodus 2:4). Berkowitz notes that vatetatzav and nitzavim share the letter-root y-tz-v, signifying that Miriam and the Israelites were both "firmly planted, unshakeable, committed."
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