Moses’s final words to the Israelites reverberate with the drumbeat of a keyword, hayom, today. The opening verses of Nitzavim center around the idea of hayom:

“You stand today, all of you, before the LORD your God… that you may enter into the covenant… which the LORD your God is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:10-14)

Hayom appears a total of 16 times in this double-parasha, which represents over one-fifth of the 74 mentions of the word in Deuteronomy. By comparison, the other four books of the Torah combined mention hayom a total of 61 times. If Deuteronomy is significant for its unusually high concentration of hayom within the Torah, Nitzavim-Veyelech is particularly distinguished.

Midrash Tanhuma offers one interpretation of hayom in this parasha: “Just as today is sometimes dark and sometimes light, so too for you: even though it may be dark now, in the future the Holy One will shine an everlasting light, as the verse states, ‘And God will be for you an everlasting light’ (Isaiah 60:19–which was from last week’s haftarah). And when will this be? When you are united as one…” (Tanhuma Nitzavim 4). The Midrash’s understanding of hayom here focuses on the transience of a single day: this too shall pass. Whatever darkness, whatever suffering we may have today will ultimately be superseded by the everlasting light of God. Not, the Midrash argues, on account of grace, but rather when the Jewish people find a way to be unified.

Another understanding of hayom is that offered by various midrashim throughout Deuteronomy: What does the Torah mean when it states, “And the words that which I command you today shall be on your hearts?” (Deut. 6:6–from the Shema) That every day you must see yourself as standing at Sinai being commanded anew. Or, in other traditions, that every day a voice goes forth from Sinai again. Here the emphasis is not on the transience of today, but on the newness and preciousness of today. The point is not to hold on and get to tomorrow, but to recognize that every day has the potential to be just as transformative as the moment of Revelation at Sinai.

Hayom is one of the watchwords for the High Holidays. The traditional Musaf ends with a prayer whose refrain is hayom, recited seven times (eight in some editions). Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah. Ki bayom hazeh yichaper aleichem, For today you shall be atoned, we say on Yom Kippur.

When we say these lines we can experience both approaches: Today can be a day we get through, a day to endure until a brighter day comes. But today can, simultaneously, be a day of transformation, renewal and change–as dramatic and meaningful as the day the Torah was given. This is the paradoxical nature of living in time: it is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, the dimension we cannot control, but it is precisely the dimension that makes us human. We know that this moment will end, that this day will end–and that is exactly what makes it possible for the moment or the day to be meaningful.

Shabbat shalom.

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