Parashat Nitzavim – Apocalypse Now?
Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 14 September 2020
We have heard quite a lot recently about the importance of routines in our lives, and how rituals can help our wellbeing during difficult times. Like many of you, I have had to change some of my routines since lockdown, but I have also acquired some new rituals: among them Kiddush on Zoom with my brother in Glasgow; and exchanging weekly WhatsApp messages with certain friends and family members. They are often very brief and light-hearted, but they help us to feel connected. One cousin in Jerusalem sends me a photo at 6 o’clock every Friday morning, usually a flower or something else in her neighbourhood, and I do the same for her; I have even started looking out for images which I think will surprise or delight her.
This week, in addition to some pretty herbs growing through a wall, I received a picture of a display in a bookshop, featuring the following notice above it:
“The Post-Apocalyptical Fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs”.
Like so many of the jokes circulating at present, there is a certain bitter truth in it. It has certainly felt recently that we may be on the edge of a precipice in terms of the pandemic and its impact on the world as we have known it. I do share a sense of dread that the coming months may be very difficult, but personally, I don’t feel that the whole world is coming to an end.
Apocalyptic writing is a genre of literature claiming to reveal mysteries beyond the bounds of normal knowledge – often claiming to foresee an “end of days”. It is not just a fashion of the 21st century, it has been part of Israelite and Jewish thinking for well over 2000 years, because plagues and pandemics and the need to rebuild lives in difficult times are not new. Whenever the situation in which we find ourselves feels utterly intolerable, perhaps it is only human nature to start dreaming of a better future, to think: ‘We must have gone badly astray, and this is a warning. Perhaps we are the last generation. Things are so bad that only some sort of miraculous intervention can make them better; an ‘end of days’ is approaching when there will some sort of cosmic upheaval followed by a redemption.” It is typical of this sort of literature, there is at least one ‘enlightened’ individual or group who believe that they are in some way the agent for this redemption.
This week’s Torah portion Nitzavim does not fall within the definition of apocalyptic literature, but it does contain elements of the same flavour, and is considered so important that we will hear parts of it again in just a few days’ time, for it is also one of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.
The chapters of Deuteronomy before our reading this Shabbat are full of very dire threats and predictions about what could happen – but our section takes a different angle, emphasising that all is not lost.
‘we shall turn our heart around’; ‘we shall return to God’; ‘God will turn around our captive status’, ‘we shall return’, ‘if only we turn back…’.
If you have any ear for Hebrew, the passage ‘riffs’ on the Hebrew root ‘ שוב ‘ (shuv – return) :in a remarkable way, repeating it 8 times in just a few verses
Traditionally, commentators have focussed on the meaning of Teshuvah as repentance, but I came across a piece written some years ago by Jonathan Arkush (who later became president of the Board of Deputies, and spoke at Alyth in that capacity). He wrote that it may be more helpful to think of teshuvah as returning to where we should be:
“All is not lost. In time to come we shall recover our collective nerve and judgement” 
What might I do if I believed that the end of the world really was approaching?
Perhaps I would make a point of eating my favourite food for the last time? Or hurriedly write letters and messages for posterity, and bury them in a time capsule? Clean and tidy my house? Or maybe examine and try to clean & tidy my ‘soul’, whatever we mean by that? Or get together with likeminded people and resolve to do our utmost to change the world and prevent its ending, aiming to be among those who are “saved” if everything really does go pear-shaped?
Actually, isn’t that what we all try to do every year at this time?
Just one week from now, we will be in the middle of the service for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when we immerse ourselves in language of judgement and doom. We imagine a celestial court where each of us stands as defendant, our deeds examined, and a decision made: Who will live and who will die.
You may feel that we have already been living in that courtroom for months.
Maybe that could be a helpful way of looking at the Yamim Noraim this year: a time to see our own lives and our place in history in perspective. Each of us has been affected this year: we have been frightened, frustrated, bereaved, hurt – and it is far from over. We know that we are mortal and that neither we nor those we love will be here for ever. Yet most of us will get through it in the short term.
Our portion reminds us to ‘Choose life!’ We may not be able to decide or even to foresee what this year will bring, but we always have some choice in our attitude to our circumstances.
Another gem I received this week in a WhatsApp message was a recording of the 1970 Nurit Hirsh song “Bashanah HaBa’a”. This was a recent ‘socially distanced’ version, not the best I have ever heard, but it was upbeat and positive, as the original song was, that things can and will get better. (thank you Lois, if you’re listening).
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, and each of us tries to engage in reflection about our lives and the things that matter to us, let us resolve not just to ‘pray’ for divine intervention for better times, but let us also ‘vow’ to do our bit so that HaShanah HaBa’a – the coming year – will be more ‘Tova’ if possible for those around us.
 Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: entry under “Apocalypse”
 Taste of Limmud 2011