This week we read a double portion of Torah. It is the last Shabbat of the year and the parsha presents us with some interesting ideas. At first glance the two names of the parshiot seem in contradiction with each other.
Nitzavim means ‘you are standing” and Vayeilech means “And he went out”. When a person stands he’s not going anywhere. And when a person goes, he is not standing on one place. So that’s a conundrum.
But a closer look provides some valuable insight.
The meaning of Nitzavim is not merely to stand, but rather to stand firmly. A Jew should feel strong about being Jewish and fulfill the mitzvot proudly. Nothing in the world should be able to budge him. Today, tomorrow, next week, and next year, he should continue keeping the laws of the Torah.
But standing firmly does not mean standing still.
Together with Nitzavim comes Vayeilech, which means ‘And he went.’ A Jew can never remain standing in one place. Ideally he or she is always moving forward to do more good deeds and become a better person.
Our parshah begins with Vayeilech Moshe — ‘And Moshe went.’ Moshe Rabbeinu was 120 years old. He knew that this was to be the last day of his life. Even though he was just about to complete a lifetime of holy activity, he was still moving forward, adding more good deeds.
Here’s a lovely passage taken from Keeping in Touch by Rabbi E. Touger.
“This portion of the Torah is read every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, because on Rosh Hashana, the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is renewed. For on Rosh Hashana, we "are all standing... before G-d." The essential G-dly core which every person possesses rises to the forefront of his consciousness, and the fundamental bond between G-d and humankind surfaces. On this basis a covenant is renewed for the entire year to come, including the inevitable occasions when these feelings of oneness will not be experienced as powerfully.”
“The Torah states that this covenant is being established when "you are all standing together," and proceeds to mention ten different groupings within the Jewish people. Implied is that the establishment of a bond of oneness with G-d is also mirrored by bonds of oneness within our people. For the same spiritual potential that motivates our connection to G-d evokes an internal unity which bonds our entire people together.”
“The essence of every one of us is a soul which is a Divine spark, an actual part of G-d is within us; that is why we are bound to Him.”
“We all share this infinite and unbounded spiritual potential equally. That is why we are bound to each other. And that is why the covenant is established as we stand together. For as we center on the inner motivation for our relationship with G-d, we realize that a spiritual reality is all-encompassing and joins us with each other.”
“In our prayers we say, "Bless us our Father, all as one." Standing together as one generates a climate fit for blessing. Standing before G-d "as one," on Rosh Hashana will lead to a year of blesssings for all humankind in material and spiritual matters.”
Many consider the most beautiful passage in the entire Torah to be found in this week’s parsha.
"Surely, this mitzvah that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
The beauty of this mitzvah is that it is not explained – meaning that we can find our own personal meaning in it. Commentators have offered many ideas about its meaning –
Nahmanides says that the phrase refers to the entire Torah, and Seforno explains it as teshuvah--repentance and return. By pairing Torah, which at its essence demands that we pursue justice, and teshuvah, our capacity to right wrongs, we can understand this passage as a mandate to believe that we have an innate capacity to fight the status quo when it is unjust and create change in the world around us.
By telling us that "this mitzvah" resides within us--in our mouths and in our hearts--this passage acknowledges and strongly rejects the human tendency toward defeatism: to convince ourselves that change, hope, and progress are beyond our grasp.
Did you notice that the passage refers to THIS MITZVAH or THIS COMMANDMENT in the singular. What does it mean? Why would it read in Deuteronomy 8:1 "All the commandment" instead of "All the commandments?" Is it talking about one commandment or is it talking about many? If it is talking about one commandment what might it be? In Deuteronomy 30:11, if you read the verse as speaking of only one commandment which one would it be?
In the first case the people of Israel are advised to do the commandment as a condition for entering the land. While in the second citation, Israel is cautioned to keep the commandment as an antidote to exile. If we return to God, then God returns to us, and therefore we will return together to the land that was promised.
Nachmanides says that in Deuteronomy 8, the commandment is referring to the entire Torah and that the singular is used to emphasize that it represents all of God’s word. In Deuteronomy 30 however, he said it is referring to only one commandment, to return to God, for this is the one thing that is never beyond reach, but "rather near to you is the word, exceedingly, in your mouth and in your heart…"
This is what change is all about. Nachmanides is empowering us to remember that we can always resolve to be different irrespective of where we live, what we have or who we have become. It is always close; it is always within reach because it is within all of us.
We may sometimes wish that we could be passive receptacles for the difficult, transformative mitzvot that help us enact change in the world around us, that someone else could do this hard work for us, but this passage vehemently rejects that notion. Rather, it insists that the capacity to effect change resides within us. Yet the passage neglects to tell us how we each can come to actualize and act on this capacity. According to Adina Gerver (an Advanced Scholar at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem)–the answer lies in the next parashah, Vayelekh (Deut. 31:10-12): which talks about the seventh year shemittah Hakhel -an all-inclusive, free, public education, granted to women, men, and children, both community members and strangers. According to medieval commentators Abraham Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni, hakhel takes place at the beginning of the shemittah, or sabbatical year, when agricultural work is forbidden. This enables the full year, when the entire community is free from physical labor, to be devoted to study. This model of universal access to education is the Torah's built-in system to activate our capacity to change and improve the world. Although imperfect due to its extreme infrequency--one year out of every seven does not provide for a very thorough education--hakhel's messages of universal access and the need for sufficient time away from work in order to study are relevant today.
And isn’t that exactly what we are trying to do here – take an hour a week and study Torah?
So, in this vein, let’s look this evening at one of the most interesting Torah scholars of our time – Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger who writes a weekly blog about the Parsha. He raises some awesome points about this phrase from Nitzavim.
“It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ “(D’varim 30:12)
Rabbi Neal writes,
“The verse quoted above is one of the most famous verses in the Torah, as well as the punch-line to one of the most famous stories in the Talmud. It comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which itself comes toward the end of the Book of D’varim [Deuteronomy]. D’varim, in turn depicts the end of Moshe’s life, and his increasingly dramatic exhortations to the Jewish people to follow Torah and keep the covenant after they go on to the Land of Israel without him. Moshe tells the people that the Torah is not far away, nor in the heavens, nor across the sea- but very close to us, so that we may do it.
Our friend Rashi explains “not in the heavens” in a way that seems a bit obvious at first:
“not in the heavens”- for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend [to heaven] to learn it. “
“It took me a few minutes of pondering Rashi’s seemingly tautological commentary to realize that he’s not talking about geography, as it were, at all, but rather teaching a point of spiritual psychology. It’s not about ascending to the heavens in a physical way, nor even the notion that we’d have to die or go on some spiritual quest to learn Torah; the plain meaning of the verse makes it clear that those aren’t necessary. Rather, what I think Rashi means is that as individuals (and presumably on a communal level too) we don’t have to reach heights of spiritual or religious purity or achievement in order to live fulfilling lives in Torah. You don’t have to “ascend”- that is, be saintly or scholarly or a model of piety- in order to apply Torah to your life in a practical and fruitful way.”
“If can I borrow the terminology of last year’s social protests, Torah is not for the 1% – the saintly and pious- but for the 99%. It’s for people who make mistakes, who get confused, who fall short, who don’t feel organized or learned or worthy enough to practice Judaism in their lives. At the heart of Torah is the idea of t’shuvah, or return: when we inevitably fall short, or fall apart, or get undone, we can always return. We return to Torah, to community, to our own souls; nobody is perfect, but everybody can return to a place of wholeness.
This is, of course, a central message of the Days of Awe, rapidly approaching. All that a life of Torah requires is a simple decision to start from where we are in that moment and go forward to do the next mitzvah, whether one of prayer, compassion, justice or learning. These days, to learn Torah doesn’t require much more than a cell phone or internet connection (though a synagogue connection is a much deeper form of spiritual broadband!) so there’s no excuse that it’s too far, too complicated, or too hard. “
“The path to God we call Torah is waiting for us, closer than we realize.”
I read a fascinating D’var Torah written by Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins, in which he posits,
“Judaism teaches God’s power over life and death in our daily prayers and in heightened fashion over the Ten Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim. While the word “Nora” as in the Yamim Noraim can mean awful, it can also mean awesome. The choice of how we understand this time in our life is ours. We make a mistake if we think the liturgy of these days is telling us that the power is solely God’s and not ours. ”
“Said Rabbi Kruspedia, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked, and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed in the book of life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed and sealed in the book of death; and the intermediates are held suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if found unworthy, they are inscribed for death.” The author of the sublime liturgical poem, Unataneh Tokef, that connects the days from Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur says it as follows: “Let us proclaim the sacred power of the day: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die….”. The sound of the Shofar that has been heard throughout this last month and so strongly over these days is to herald that God the Sovereign Ruler, the One Who sits in judgment over us, is now presiding on the throne. The court has opened, the trial begun. Will we be inscribed in the book of Life or the book of Death? Is this the year God will instruct our atoms –or some cruel human deed or act of nature – to close us down because we have not been good enough?”
‘It seems preposterous, with our knowledge of science and history, that we can consider that there exists such a God Who is King sits in judgment of each and every one of us. Considering this small earth is tucked away in one solar system of one galaxy amongst at least 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe – if each one were the size of a pea, enough to fill the entire Town Hall (Bryson, p115) - how do we have the temerity to say God knows our each and every deed? How can God, as the liturgy of this day posits, judge each and every living thing, every animal and every plant, individually and collectively, all in the period of this Judgment Day, or even over these 10 Days of Awe? ”
“One response is the one from the 12th century rationalist philosopher, talented doctor and ingenious rabbi, Moses Maimonides. He accepted the teaching of our sages that God knows the thoughts and deeds of each and every one of us, or as the 2nd century sage Rabbi Akiva best put the paradox, “Everything is predetermined and free will is given.” Maimonides’ take on that was to expand on the verse from the Psalm, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the LORD.” Said Maimonides, the perspective of the human, bound by space and time, cannot by definition be that of the Infinite One Who exists beyond space and time. Maimonides’ proposition is made more mind boggling when contemporary science teaches us that time is a human construct, the fourth dimension in our world which is part of a broader universe where past, present and future do not have the same meaning. Yet if these traditional explanations can show how science, history, creation and religion can co-exist on one level, a deeper moral problem exists within our liturgy. As Abraham challenged, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth judge justly?”
“We can accept that there will be those who die of natural death, and we grieve accordingly. But when terror, violence, nature and disease strike – how many of us can accept the traditional understanding that this moment of death is that soul’s recompense? The words of Unataneh Tokef seem to presage our daily news…who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague….” There are two major solutions to understanding these words, while accepting that the Judge of all the earth judges justly. The first is to posit, as does the tradition, that the soul has many incarnations and sometimes its final one just requires a brief span on earth to fulfill its task, to be elevated to the next level of existence, where souls exist closer to God and further from earth. Even if this kabalistic teaching is true, it is small comfort for the family whose father is taken by cancer in his 40s or whose child is exploded by a homicide bomber. This cannot – should not – be the will of God. ”
“A second option is to consider the words of the prayers in front of us these days from a different perspective. Perhaps the words are not descriptive of who shall live and who shall die, but rather prescriptive of how one shall live. The Unataneh Tokef itself teaches that “repentance, prayer and righteous deeds” ameliorate the severity of the decree. There will come the year of our death. The question in front of us this season is what shall be the quality of our life. Teshuvah, repentance, teaches us to be reflective of who we are, to repair any relationships or personal attributes we regret at this time. Tefillah teaches us to open our hearts and minds to the mystery of life that each of us, seeing the stars and hearing of the atom, should recognize. Tzedakah teaches that, since we are all made of the same stuff, we truly are interconnected and responsible for each other. Yes, we live in a world of terror – and while we may not win the war against terror itself, we can win the battle to not be terrorized. While we have major decisions to make in the democratic choice in front of us in a few weeks, these few days teach us where to focus our energy: our hearts, our minds, our most immediate personal connections, our meaning, and our purpose. ”
“As the sage Akaviah ben Mahalel taught thousands of years ago: “Know your origin, your destination, and before Whom you will be required to give an accounting. Your origin? A putrid drop. Your destination? A place of dust, worms and maggots. Before whom will you be required to give an accounting? Before the King of kings, the holy One, praised by God.” (Pirkei Avot 3:1). Akaviah and Bryson teach the same thing: we are an extraordinary composition of atoms that will soon decompose. Akaviah adds the religious significance taught in Judaism: we have a consciousness and conscience that should lead to right action. This is the moment to review the balance sheet of our soul’s accounting, for whether or not there is a God beyond who sits in judgment, we all have the ability to live our lives with good judgment and give an honest accounting of our own lives to date.”
“Each and every Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the anniversary of creation, for according to tradition this is the day on which Adam and Eve were created from the earth in the Garden of Eden. Most Jews no longer believe that this event really happened 5765 years ago, accepting that the best estimate of the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. So let us think of 5765 as a construct, a helpful moment saying that not too long ago there was a time when humanity reached a different state of awareness. Until that time we were not far from mud men, creatures made up of that same atomic soup as the rest of the universe, earthlings of the same composition as planet earth. Somehow our version of stardust has become mysteriously animated so that we can consider not just the heady notions of time, space and infinity, but the even more complex subjects of choice and morality. In the construct of the anniversary of events 5765 years ago, we were created and ate of the tree of knowledge that gave us responsibility. Accepting it, we can celebrate and make the most of our unique and all too brief time in this universe. None of us knows our fate, but each of us is master of our destiny. May we be inspired by the messages of the prayers and teachings before us these days to take pride of authorship in the Book of Life we write for ourselves.”