My Grandmom Freda, of blessed memory, taught me many things. How to knit and crochet, and how to cook and bake. How to celebrate every happy occasion with family that you possibly can. How to stand fast in the face of challenges like loss and illness and not let setbacks deter or define me.
But I have carried one particular lesson of hers throughout my life. It’s an adage you probably can complete with me:
“If you can’t say something kind about someone . . .
“Don’t say anything at all.”
I try my best to hold to that teaching. But this morning, on Yom Kippur, I have to acknowledge that sometimes an unkind word will slip, and for that I am sorry. I don’t always get it right.
But then again, neither did Grandmom Freda. She actually did sometimes say unkind things about people. But if I was in earshot, she just said them in Yiddish. When she would switch to Yiddish talking to Grandpop Mike or to one of her friends, I knew what was going on – just not who, what or when.
Still, if she had to talk smack in code, it taught me just how powerful words can be. Kind words break the ice, open hearts, begin conversations, and initiate lasting relationships. Unkind words have the opposite effect.
Kindness is the last of the four values on which I’m speaking in my sermons during these Days of Awe, inspired by historian Howard Zinn and his lesson about bringing hope to dark times.
The last few years have been dark and scary for all of us, and if our Days of Awe give us anything, it is an opening to a more hopeful future. Zinn wrote:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”
When we emphasize kindness, we not only determine our own lives, but those of others as well. And there’s no better example of that than this morning’s Torah portion.
Moses has spent the entirety of the book of Deuteronomy on a vengeful spree, rewriting history to reflect perceived wrongs done to him by the Israelite nation — recalcitrant and stubborn and obstinate and unfaithful, as they are. In modern British slang, we would say that Deuteronomy is Moses “being a mood” for 34 chapters. In Parashat Nitzavim, he looks like he’s lobbing more verbal hand grenades before he goes. The fact that our reading today is heavily redacted to emphasize the positive gives us a clue as to the rest of it.
But let’s take a closer look, to suss out what I think is an undercurrent of kindness in Moses’s words. And let’s start at the beginning.
You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Eternal, which God is making with you this day.
We talk about the overt language of “nitzavim” as “standing at attention” – like mustering an army to go to battle. It’s the same word we see in the uprising led by Korach, when mutineers Dathan and Abiram “stand” at the entrance of their tents as Moses threatens the rebels with destruction.
But here, Moses is very careful with his words: Atem nitzavyim, hayom kulchem: You stand here today, all of you. Today, I am not calling you to attention to separate out the sacred from the profane, the faithful from the faithless. Today I am uniting you – men, women and children, the highborn and the low-born, all of you together, and bringing every single one of you in covenant with God. As the 19th century Polish rabbi Joseph Saul Nathansohn taught, “Thus Moses is saying: ‘You stand this day’ – [because] all of you, both great and small, are worthy of this.”
But if that’s true, why do the people need a second covenant right before they enter the Promised Land? Wasn’t the covenant at Mount Sinai, with all that thunder and lighting and the sound of the shofar, good enough?
Well, yes…but. The Polish Hasidic Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain wrote a century ago:
“When two friends make a covenant, it is not for the present, for a time when they are very close, but for the future, because sometimes, as time passes, their feeling of closeness dissolves . . . once [the Israelites] entered Eretz Yisrael . . . even though there would be times when all would be dark and they would be tossed about throughout the world, the Jews would still maintain love of God within themselves.”
Again, we see here kindness on Moses’s part. Keep in mind that this is not the generation that had stood at Sinai – the ones who, because they were born in slavery, needed all that thunder and lightning to convince them to say yes to God. These were people born free, and under God’s protection. Moses trusted that all they needed was a kind reassurance to say yes for themselves and for their children: both with those who are standing here with us this day and those who are not here with us this day.
Moses is assuring them here that their children will enjoy God’s protection as well. And that’s especially important right now, because they realize that Moses won’t be there to take care of them. Moses soothes their worries and promises: Joshua will look after them on God’s behalf.
Later on in our reading, Moses calls heaven and earth to witness the vows the people make – whether they choose life or death, blessing or curse. In other words, whether they will follow God’s laws or not. The fact is that Moses knows these people all too well. He knows some of them will sin; some will lose faith. But he promises, in verses we do not read today, that no matter how far they stray and where they may end up, they have the chance to repent and return.
“Then,” says Moses, “the Eternal God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love God with all your heart and soul that you may live.”
This is love, not fear. This is kindness, not callousness.
And when Moses challenges the people to choose between life and good over death and evil, he moves from the plural to the singular – Natati l’faneicha hayom: This day I set this choice before you, and you, and you. Why does he do that? Because even this challenge, Moses couches in the intentional language of kindness. As the Gaon of Vilna teaches: “This verse is in the singular to teach that even when confusion reigns and people sin, each individual is required to strengthen himself and to know that God has made a covenant with him and speaks to him.”
Moses brings the entire nation together to help them see just how strong they are individually and as one people – and will be, when he is gone. He invokes a divine covenant so that they can be assured of God’s care, now and for the future. He fully acknowledges that he knows they’ll get into trouble – but if they turn from sin, God will always welcome them back with a warm embrace. He cautions them that hard times will come but encourages them: You can do this.
Here, now, Moses puts away the language of recrimination and anger. He’s gotten that all out of his system. He does not want his Book of Life to end this way. He wants to leave them – and he wants to leave his life – with tenderness and forgiveness. With words of kindness. With hope for dark times.
And so this is our message from Torah on this day of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. God asks each of us: How will you spend your days on earth? How will you leave it? How will the people who love you, who rely on you – how will they remember you?
“Compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”
Ken yehi ratson. May this be the blessing that God bestows upon us this day, as we embark on a year of hope. Let us say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.
 Torah Gems, Vol III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing, 1992), p. 297
 Ibid., p. 300.
 Deut. 30:6
 Ibid, pp. 307-308.