Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Many people watch courtroom dramas on TV. What happens when the judge enters and takes his seat? Everybody stands.

Maybe they derived this usage from Jewish procedure which in turn comes from this week’s sidra, which begins with Israel standing before God who scrutinises them all and decides their fate.

It’s a pre-Rosh Hashanah scenario. The posture of the people depends on the agenda.

Psalm 1 speaks of three postures – walking, standing and sitting. Blessed, says the psalmist, is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, stands not in the path of sinners, and sits not in the seat of the scornful.

What occasion is right for walking? When you have a goal and are making progress towards it. If the wicked give gratuitous advice about where to go and how to get there, you need the wisdom to assess whether the wicked are right.

What occasion is appropriate for standing? When you see things happening around you and you need time to think and take a stand, irrespective of the sinners who want you to deflect you.

What occasion is appropriate for sitting? When you need your mind to concentrate on a subject, taking everything seriously and not being influenced by people who can only criticise or pour scorn.

It's not in heaven

The Torah portion says of God’s Word, "It’s not in heaven or across the sea" (Deut. 30:12).

Even if it were in heaven or over the sea we would still be duty-bound to strive for it, but it’s not as distant as all that. It is accessible wherever we happen to be.

There must be a symbolism in the use of the words "in heaven" and "across the sea".

Possibly it is this: The Torah is neither spiritually and intellectually beyond us, nor is it geographically inaccessible.

Take each category on its own. The first says that the Torah is not too high for us – "in heaven", as it were.

God bless you if you’re a saint or a genius, but most people aren’t. Saints and geniuses can find their way to the Torah; so can the rest of us.

On one level or another, we can all comprehend and adopt Torah ideas and insights.

The second category says that the Torah is not "across the sea".

If you live in the Diaspora, forget about saying, "Things are different in Israel. There it is easier to follow the commandments". Israel is certainly different and superior, but don’t make it an excuse for not raising your religious levels in whichever place you happen to be.

And if you do have the blessing of being in Israel, don’t make an excuse out of that either, saying, "If I were in Jerusalem things would be different".

In Jerusalem things would be different, but that shouldn’t stop you elevating yourself anywhere else.

Standing alone

The sidra commences with the words, “You stand together today, all of you, before the Lord your God” (Deut. 29:9).

A wonderful sight – hundreds of thousands of Israelites, probably more than two million in all, standing in organised groups to hear the word of God.

But it has a down side. When there are massive crowds present, the individual can hide behind the community.

There are times when it is essential for the individual to face personal scrutiny, to be alone, to be unable to avoid attention.

There is a precedent in the sections of the Torah which deal with leprosy.

Concerning the leper the Torah says, “He shall sit alone: outside the camp shall his habitation be” (Lev. 13:15). In olden days lepers had to be isolated in order to prevent contagion.

Spiritually we all need to separate ourselves from the camp from time to time, to stand alone in all our possibly sorry solitariness. One such time is when our actions require attention and correction.

Another is when, like Abraham, we see so much around us that is a blot on the name of Man, and we need to be like the patriarch and to stand on the other wide and if necessary face mockery and abuse because of our moral courage.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com