We have all heard incredible speeches. However, I suggest some of the greatest speeches of all time come in the next few Torah readings. Moses delivers his last thoughts with death impending and the transition in place. Our first portion, Nitzavim, sees Moses articulating upon heaven and earth to witness the choice to be made between life and death, blessing and curse.
Moses frames Israel's choice in terms of devotion and clinging to God, the source of life. Indeed, the idea of "clinging" to God is distinctive in the Torah to Deuteronomy. What does it mean to cling (or be glued-nidbak) to God? This question arises in Midrash SifreDevarim [i] 49. Here the rabbis query as to how a person might cling to God-is it really possible to ascend to the heavens and cling to fire? The Sifre conveys that we should cling to the sages and their students, and God will, as it were, lift us up as if we had taken heaven by storm.
Clinging to God's ways is understood by the rabbis as a reference to imitating God's qualities. An even better known passage from theSifre emphasizes this point: to walk in God's ways, is to be merciful and compassionate...and righteous and faithful.
The 20th Century Chasidic writer Rabbi Shalom Yosef Faigenboim in his Netivot Shalom notes that it does not suffice to do acts of compassion and mercy; one must strive to become, in essence, compassionate and merciful-this is the path of God. Netivot Shalom speaks further about this transformation to imitate the divine qualities as "purification of moral qualities," or Taharat HaMiddot, and goes on to say that this work precedes the actual observance of mitzvoth and exceeds them in difficulty.
It is tempting to focus on our intellectualizing and our external performance of mitzvot. These are indeed essential parts of our service to God. Especially leading into Rosh HaShanah, we also must consider our middot-our internal qualities, our ways of relating to others near and far.
I pray that we all will use these coming days of teshuvah to draw ourselves closer to the divine qualities of compassion and mercy described in this important Midrash. May we all forgive and become worthy of clinging to God and emulating God's attribute of compassion.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] As you have probably quickly deduced, Sifre is Aramaic for "book" and similar to sefer. Referred to simply as Sifra, comprises the major midrashiccompilation on Numbers and Deuteronomy.