This week’s Torah reading consists of two portions bearing the contrasting names of Nitzavim (“standing upright”) and Vayelech (“and he went”). Both consist, as does the whole of Devarim (Deuteronomy) of Moses’ parting words to the Nation on the eve of their entry into the Promised Land. 1
In both Parshas, there are thoughts as relevant today as they were then – truly, in the words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) “There is nothing new beneath the sun”. 2
Firstly, let us look at Nitzavim.
Equality and togetherness
The covenant with G-d is renewed for the entire Nation – they all “Stand upright this day… ” – there is no higher and lower. 4
Alvin Schiff, Professor of Education at Azraeli Graduate School, Yeshiva University, interprets this phrase as a plea for all Jews, of whatever persuasion, to be united. To illustrate this, he quotes Obadah ben Jacob Sforno, (16th century), who reacted to Jewish communal disunity in his time. Sforno noted that the verse in the Torah which describes 7 branches of the Menorah indicates that the Menorah will be fully lit only if the 3 candles on the left and the 3 on the right face the centre and thus kindle the central lamp. He stresses that Jews cannot be “a light unto themselves or a light unto the nations” unless those concerned with material matters (left) and those involved with spiritual matters (right) bend towards the centre in a co-operative mode. Schiff says this is equally true today, and says, that although we may hope that all Jews become observant in order to guarantee Jewish continuity, we should not “read out any Jews from their covenantal rights”. On the other hand, non-observant Jews must respect the rights of traditional Jews to their beliefs and views. 8
The Link with Rosh Hashanah
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov said that “This day” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we all stand in judgement before G-d”. This, and as we will see, the concept of T’shuva, returning, is why the Torah reading of Nitzavim is always read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.
The covenant was accepted for all future generations (including us)
“Ki et-asher yeshnu paw imanu omed hayom lifney HaShem elorkeynu ve’et asher eynenu paw imanu hayom.” “(Not with you alone do I make this covenant… but with him who is standing with us today before G-d, our G-d, and with him who is not here today”). Rashi interprets this as meaning “even generations destined to be born”. The emphasis is on “HaYom” (today), which is repeated 7 times in this chapter and the next. Thus the need to add the additional words. The nation that stood at Sinai and the next generation who heard Moses’ final oration in the land of Moav, accepted G-d’s covenant, thereby obligating themselves and all their future generations to its fulfilment. 3
Why does the Nation suffer? (The eternal question)
The Parsha goes on to show how, if these obligations are not fulfilled, the nation will bring the curse down upon it. Rabbi Hirsh (not me!) says that This will show not only the descendants of those who heard Moses, “but also all the nations of the world, as a most eloquent and spectacular proof of G-d and of His workings”. 7
This is an echo of Parshat Re’eh, where we are told of the blessing and the curse that will follow as a consequence to those who follow G-d’s word and those who do not. Rashi’s beautiful interpretation is that G-d gives his blessing even before we have fulfilled His conditions (on credit, on the understanding that we will, in future, fulfil His conditions). The curse, on the other hand, is not given “on condition” – it is not inflicted unless and until the people transgress G-d’s commandments. 3
The return to Zion
Chapter 30 goes on to say “And it will come to pass, when all these words, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, will come upon you, that you will take it to heart, in the midst of all the nations to which G-d, your G-d, has exiled you and you will return all the way to G-d, … And then G-d, your G-d, will also turn back again to seek out your exiles and have compassion upon you and will gather you together from among all the peoples…” Rashi interprets this in two ways – firstly, that G-d will be in exile with His people – this is an uplifting thought, offering the exiled nation inspiration and hope. However, Rashi also says that G-d will have to go there personally to pull each Jew out of exile. The first explanation highlights G-d’s love of His people, the second, the People’s love of the good life in Exile. It can also be interpreted as distinguishing between those Jews who are in “captivity” and have not forgotten their G-d, and those who do not regard themselves as being in captivity. 3
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it – aren’t most of us reluctant to leave the country we live in and go on Aliyah? 3 5
Practicality and free choice
G-d urges the Nation to follow the commandments, which are neither in the heavens nor beyond the sea.” The import of this is that the commandments are there for all to see – they are not unattainable.
See, G-d says, “I have set before you today life and good and, also death and evil … Choose life; so that you may live – you and your descendants – to love G-d, your G-d, to hearken to His voice and to cling firmly to him; for that is your life and the length of your days.” 7 Rashi says that G-d is offering us a choice, the choice of fulfilling the obligation to do good (“life”) or not – “life” in this sense does not mean an immediate reward, otherwise there is no choice – what is required is faith and action – this is the ultimate existential choice.
Even little children …
Moses tells the People that they must, every seven years, read this Teaching in the presence of all Yisrael before their ears. “You must assemble for this purpose the people – the men, the women and the children and the stranger…so that they may hear…”
Here “children” means children before the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah – so the obligation is on the parents, even though the children may benefit only subconsciously. Not so different to the current approach of playing classical music to babies!
Cometh the hour, cometh the man?
Vayelech sets out how Moses tells the Nation he is leaving them. He did not call the people to assemble before him, as he had done whenever he has a message for them. His humility dictated otherwise. He went from tribe to tribe to pay his last farewells and give his blessings. From when G-d chose him as leader and he said “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh” to the end, humility has been his style. Now the Nation needed a leader who would lead them to conquer the land.
When Moses spoke to Joshua, before all the People, he did not want to alienate them against the new leader, so he said them that Joshua would lead with their consent – he would “come together with them”.
However, when G-d spoke to Joshua alone he said, “Be steadfast and strong, for you are to go with this people to the land that G-d swore to their fathers to give them…He will not let go of you, nor will He forsake you; fear nothing..” Moses exercised the privilege of authority by his mere presence, Joshua would have to lead and demand that privilege. 3
How to pass on the leadership
Moses arose early in the morning to Joshua’s door, and Joshua was sitting and teaching. Moses bent his frame and covered his mouth and Joshua did not see him… And all of Israel came to Moses’ door, but found him at Joshua’s door, and Joshua was sitting and Moses was standing. And the people said to Joshua: “Joshua! What has happened to you, that Moses our master is standing and you are sitting?” As soon as Joshua lifted his eyes and saw this, he immediately tore his garments and cried and wept: “Master! Father, my father and lord!” And the people said, “Moses our teacher! Teach us Torah.” And Moses said to them: “I have not licence”. 5
Moses accepted that he had to pass on the leadership and Joshua had accepted the challenge with grace and humility.
Perhaps here is a lesson for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
- Chabad Lubavitch – Parsha in depth comment
- Ecclesiastes – chapter one
- What’s bothering Rashi? – Avigdor Bonchek
- Rabbi Sender Shizga of Aloh Na’aleh, an initiative of former N American Rabbis and laymen
- Midrash Tanchuma
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch – commentary on Chumash
- Learn Torah with Alvin I Schiff (Irving I Stone distinguished Professor of Education, Azriel Graduate School, Yeshiva University).