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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH
September 11, 2004 - 25 Elul 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 31:7 - 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1174; Hertz p. 888)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

In our Torah portion this Shabbat Moshe calls all of Israel together to hear his final address: the leaders, the elders, men, women, infants, the stranger, and every sort of menial laborer "from woodchopper to water drawer." Moshe reminds the people of all that God has done for them and warns them to be loyal to God. The Torah is given not just to the wealthy or the powerful - it is accessible to all to study and observe. At the end of our portion Moshe prepares to pass the mantle of leadership over to Joshua.

Discussion Theme 1: Not in Heaven

It is not in heaven that one should say: who will go up for us to heaven and take it for us, and cause us to hear it, so that we might do it… For this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Deut 30:12-14)

Derash: Study

  1. What is the intent of "it is not in heaven?" Rava said: You will not find it with those who are haughty over it, as the heavens. Rabbi Yochanan said: You will not find it with the vain. (Eruvin 55a quoted in Torah Temimah p 357)
  2. In the Talmud we are told there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis over the purity of a certain oven. Rabbi Eliezer declared it clean, but the sages declared it unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. He said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place - others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they replied. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards - 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. Again he urged: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, why should you interfere?' So they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing inclined. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? - Rabbi Jeremiah said: That since the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, We must rule according to the majority. Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One do in that hour? Elijah replied: God laughed with joy saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.' (Talmud Bava Metziah 59b)
  3. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: Three thousand halachot were forgotten in the days of mourning over Moshe, whereupon they said to Joshua: Inquire of the Lord as Moshe did. He answered: It is not in the heavens. (Temurah 16a, quoted in Torah Temimah p 357)
  4. "For this thing is very close to you," Rabbi Yitzchak said: When is the Torah close to you? When it is in your mouth and your heart to do it. (Eruvin 55a quoted in Torah Gems p 358)
  5. "Great is learning for it leads to action" (Talmud Bava Kamah 17a)
  6. This verse spells out the process of repentance. "In your mouth" refers to viduy, confession of sin. "In your heart" refers to the heart's remorse. "To do it" refers to the need to correct one's actions. (Tzror Hamor quoted in Munk, The Call of the Torah p 333)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Conservative rabbis often quote this Talmudic text as a support for the orientation of the Conservative Movement toward Halacha. What is your opinion? What do you believe to be the intent of this passage from the Talmud?
  2. What are the limits of rabbinic authority? How is each generation to decide what laws are to be reinterpreted?
  3. I'm sure you have heard that the Law Committee of the Conservative Movement is discussing the ordination of gay rabbis. What is your opinion on the issue of the ordination of gay rabbis?
  4. It has been taught: If you want to know how well a Torah scholar has learned, don't test his or her knowledge. Instead, observe his or her actions. If the scholar has learned well it should be reflected in his or her behavior. How does your learning impact your life? Can you name a few ways that your studies have altered your behavior? Have your studies led you to curtail certain behaviors? Have they induced certain actions?
  5. The High Holidays are upon us. Have you taken the time to search your soul? Have you offered words of contrition to those you have wronged? Have you felt remorse in your heart? Have you changed? The time for Teshuva is now.

Discussion Theme 2: Moshe's Legacy

"And Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel." (Deut 31:1)

Derash: Study

  1. "And Moshe went" Where did he go? Why aren't we told where he went? Because this verse implies that Moshe went into, yes he entered into the heart of every Jew. Every Jew, in every generation, bears within his or her heart a spark of the spirit of Moshe our teacher. Thus the answer to our question is found at the end of the verse. Moshe, we are told, went forth "to all of Israel." (Wellsprings of Torah p 425)
  2. This too, is the reason why Scripture says of Moshe that "no man know his burial place" (Deut 36:6). For Moshe is enshrined not in an ordinary tomb but within the heart of every Jew. (Ibid)
  3. The word for "he went" (vayelech) implies a rebuke. (Tanchuma) A certain rabbi was removed from his position in Eastern Europe because he had rebuked the people too often. He commented: Vayelech implies rebuke. A rebuke, though, can also result in Vayelech! (Siftei Chachamim quoted in Torah Gems p 310)
  4. Moshe left his direct imprint on Joshua when he said "Be strong and of good courage" (Deut 31:7) which means: be humble in your own heart, but in the sight of all of Israel be strong and of good courage. In the sight of the people of Israel, show not humility but only strength and high resolve." (Meshech Chochma quoted in Wellsprings p 426)

Questions for Discussion

  1. The rabbis call Moshe by the title Moshe Rabeynu even though Moshe was never a rabbi. To the sages Moshe was the ultimate rabbi. How does Moshe's legacy live on in you? What is your favorite teaching; favorite story or Midrash about Moshe?
  2. There is so much wisdom in our tradition. One piece of wisdom that I am struck by when I think of Moshe's life and death is that our tradition found a way to treasure Moshe without deifying him. He was a man, a great prophet, an unparalleled leader. Yet he was human, fallible, mortal. Why do you think the Torah goes to great lengths to describe Moshe's frailties? How are Moshe's shortcomings a source of inspiration and meaning to us?
  3. Does your rabbi ever rebuke your community? What did your rabbi say? Did the rebuke lead to change? How does it feel to be rebuked? Do you think it's a rabbi's place to offer words of rebuke? Can you name a situation where you rebuked someone: a child, a sibling, a colleague. When should we speak up and when should we be silent?

 
 
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