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Rosh Hashanah Teen Service 2016/5777
Rabbi Joshua Herman
Congregation Beth Israel
October 3, 2016

 

 

Know Before Whom You Stand

 

Please rise.

                Let’s think for a moment why we are standing. We say these words, “please rise,” throughout the service.  But why do you rise? Why do you stand? Is it because the rabbi said to do so? Is it because everyone else is standing? Is it in honor of God, or out of respect for the Torah? Is it because everyone else is doing so and it would be uncomfortable to be the only one seated? Is it some combination of all of these reasons?

Ok, please take a seat.

                Lately there has been a lot of talk about who is standing and who is sitting. It started a few weeks ago when Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, remained seated during the national anthem before a pre-season game. When asked why, he told reporters that he was protesting police brutality against African Americans. Since then, more and more people have been joining in Kaepernick’s protest. Some of his teammates have begun to take a knee during the anthem. Three Philadelphia Eagles players raised their fists in the air, while the Seattle Seahawks linked arms. Megan Rapinoe, a player on the US women’s soccer team, became the first white athlete to join the protest. The list now goes on and on, from the NFL to college sports and even to high school and youth leagues. For those who protest, why do they not stand? For those who do not, why do they stand? These questions are in the forefront of our minds because of current events, but they are actually part of a much more ancient question, one asked by the ancient Rabbis and one that we ought to revisit throughout our lives.

                If you go into many synagogues all around the world, you will often see five words written above the holy ark: דע לפני מי אתה עומד, know before whom you stand. These are the words written on the neck of my tallit. I’m very flattered that when I ask the congregation to rise they do so, but the answer to “know before whom you stand” is not me. Nor does it refer to the Torah or the ark above which it is written. “Know before whom you stand,” refers to God — and while the standing part is quite easy for those who are able-bodied, it is the knowing part that is so difficult. It is not good enough to simply stand before God. We must know God and know why we are standing; we must stand with understanding, with purpose, and with kavannah — with intention.

                The problem is that if we look at the Torah, at the many times in which we are told to stand or not to stand, there are many reasons why we should do so. Most of the time, we are told to stand out of reverence or respect. Sometimes, the Torah instructs us to stand before God. Moses stands when God gives him the Ten Commandments, and on Yom Kippur we will read from the Torah portion Nitzavim that when all of us received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, all of us were standing — those who lived during those times, and even all of us today. Other times, standing is a sign of respect not of God, but of a human king or a judge. The grandparents in the room will be happy to hear that we are even told to stand before an elderly person, as it says מפני שיבה תקום, you shall rise before the aged (and show deference to the old).

                Thus to stand is to show reverence or respect, whether it is to God, to a king or judge, or simply to a person who has gained the wisdom of old age.

                Yet reverence and respect is not the only reason we stand. When the angels left Abraham’s tent and set out to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorah, the Torah states that Abraham stood before God in protest, as he asked, “Will you sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?” When the wicked sorcerer Bilam set out to curse the Israelites, God sent an angel to stand in his way. Indeed, sometimes, we are told not to stand. When Joseph tells his brothers to return to Canaan and bring his father back to him, he warns them אל תעמוד, do not stand, hurry, go do something. We are instructed, “Do not stand upon your fellow’s blood.” In the Torah, it means that we should not make our living on another’s suffering like a sweatshop owner or one who profits by taking advantage of the poor, but the Rabbis understand it to also mean that we should not stand by idly while someone is suffering.

                Standing can mean different things at different times. It can be a sign of respect, like standing at attention. It can also be a sign of protest or defiance, like when we take a stand. It can even be a sign of inaction, such as when we stand idly by.

                When we think of who stands during the national anthem and who does not, I’m sure that different people here have different opinions. This might be because for different people, standing means something different. For some, they stand for the anthem because it and the flag represent the highest of ideals to which we must pay respect, and the great sacrifice that some have made for those ideals. To others, they stand or do not stand because they feel that we have fallen short of those lofty ideals, and because those ideals allow for us to demonstrate and stand up for — or sit down for — that which we believe.

                Whether you yourself choose to sit or stand for the national anthem, and whether you agree or disagree with those who choose not to stand, our tradition teaches that each of us, every one of us, stands this time of year in judgment. We all stand together as individuals and as a community to be judged for our actions this past year. Not only must we heed the call דע לפני מי אתה עומד, know before whom you stand, the Rabbis teach us that we must know a few other things. In Pirkei Avot it says:

 

דע מאין באת ולאן אתה הולך ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון.

Know from where you came, and where you are going,

 and before whom you will one day give a judgment and an accounting.

 

                Instead of asking about whether we stand, we should be thinking of these questions. We must ask ourselves, where have we come from? What kind of people have we been this past year, and what kind of society have we been? What have we done to solve inequality and injustice, and where have we not done enough? Then we must ask ourselves, where are we going? What can we do differently, how can we do better, how can we act to diminish racism, injustice, and inequality? And finally, as we ask all of these questions, we must know before whom we stand in judgment, before whom we stand as the accounting of our mistakes and shortcomings are tallied.

                The Talmud records the story of when the great teacher Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, and his students came to visit him on his deathbed. They asked their teacher that before he dies he teach them the secret to eternal life. He told them that the secret is to treat each other with respect, to educate their children, and he concluded by saying to them, “When you pray, know before whom you are standing, and by this you shall merit the world to come.” As we begin the new year and as we confront the challenges facing us, our country, and the world, and as we stand in judgment, let us remember where we have come from, where we are going, and before whom we stand. Let us give thanks for that which we have done, but let us strive even harder in the future. When we stand in reverence, may we have the awareness to appreciate all that we have which allows us to stand, and that we live in a country which allows us to express ourselves freely. When we stand in defiance or protest, may we have the strength to continue to stand against injustice and inequality. And once we have stood, and once we have taken a stand, may we stop standing and use our feet instead to march forward, to take action, to make next year a more just, fair, and sweet year for all of God’s children everywhere. Amen.

  
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