Attest” and “protest”: on these two stands of human conscience the civilized world depends. They are central to this week’s reading, which begins with the words “Atem Nitzavim (“you stand”), a reference to the way we rise in a courtroom to offer testimony — to tell, as the saying goes, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We “attest,” that is, to the truth; but in so doing, we also “protest” the trashing of those truths by people who find them inconvenient.
It is not just truths that are at stake, says Shimon ben Gamaliel (Avot 1:18), but justice and peace as well; for truth, justice, and peace are the three things on which humanity stands or falls. At our best, Maimonides explains, we human beings naturally strive for intellectual and moral perfection (truth and peace), but these rely on the prior existence of justice.
Failed attestation gets its fair share of recognition, because the lies we tell, the rancor we cause, and the injustices we engender are seen and heard; they leave a trail to be investigated, reported, and disseminated for discussion.
Failed protestation, by contrast — the failure to protest the moral outrages that other people perpetrate — more easily goes unattended, because observers taking notes on the large but finite number of things that people actually did say or do can hardly know, much less include, the infinity of things they didn’t. A news report on some public statement by the president, say, is simply incapable of including everything that the entire cabinet or congress did not say in response.
But our moral accounting sheet has both columns: “attestation,” the active stands we take, by word or deed; and “protestation,” the passive stands we failed to take, when other people were saying or doing what we knew to be wrong. The first, Yom Kippur will soon remind us, are sins of commission; the latter are sins of omission.
Commentators regularly observe that the word “you” (“atem”) in “You are standing” (“atem nitzavim”) is followed by “all of you” (“kulkhem”) — leaders and followers, household-heads and their entire families. The Torah, seemingly, cannot close without each and every Jew being subpoenaed to stand before God. This was, says Ramban, a renewal of the Sinai covenant, but with everyone on hand, not just Moses alone atop the mountain. Kli Yakar goes further: it was an altogether new covenant, he says, because the old one failed, in that the people who were not personally alongside Moses at the time felt no responsibility for it.
In particular, says Or Hachaim, their failure lay in the second column of moral responsibility: protestation. Hard as it may be to speak truth, act justly, and seek peace, it is infinitely harder to go public against those who don’t: we risk displeasing them; we may even benefit from their actions; and besides, no one will notice, much less report, if we simply choose to turn our backs, keep silent, and go about your business. The Talmud, however, warns expressly that those who fail to protest against the sins of their household, city, people, and nation are punished for those sins, as if they had done them themselves (Shabbat 54b).
Don’t we hold the average collaborators of the Shoah guilty of this very sin? Not that they all personally dispossessed, enslaved, and ultimately murdered their Jews, but that they failed to protest when others did so.
Rosh HaShanah falls just one day after Nitzavim this year. However much we gobble up apples and honey while wishing each other sweetness, we should remember that on Yom Kippur, just 10 days later, we will stand, “all of us,” to be held accountable for the balance sheet that measures how we did in humanity’s search for truth, justice, and peace. The easy part is what, in word or deed, we wrongly attested to. The hard part, but no less important, is what we should have protested, but didn’t.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.