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Torah Sparks

October 1, 2005 - 27 Elul 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20, the eighth in the book. It coincides with the seventh and last Shabbat of Consolation that follows Tisha B'Av and precedes Rosh Hashanah. Because 5765 is a leap year, and there are more weeks during which Torah portions are read, this portion is read separately from torah portion VaYelekh which will be read next Shabbat.


Nitzavim is one of Moses' narrative summaries of the major themes of Deuteronomy:

  1. The Israelites are called to enter the covenant formally with God and are reminded that God knows the deepest thoughts of the individual who might decide to break the covenant;
  2. Failure to follow the covenant will end in disaster, with all the nations and future generations as witnesses to the downfall of the Israelites as a result of their violation of the covenant;
  3. The people always have the opportunity to repent, to return to God, and to be redeemed from exile in the future;
  4. The people are admonished to choose life and good rather than death and evil, by choosing to love God and to follow in God's path through the observance of all of God's laws and statutes.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion with Commentaries

Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children to always apply all of this teaching, (i.e., the Torah and its laws). (29:28)

  • From Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany, 1040-1105) - And should you, the Jewish people, complain to God, "What can we do? You're going to punish everyone for the nefarious intentions of individuals who wish to rebel against You… and how can anyone know the hidden thoughts of a person?" Know that I, God, will not punish you for concealed things, for they belong to the Lord, and God will punish that individual. However, concerning revealed sins against God, it is up to the community to root out the evil from its midst. If the community fails to do this, then everyone will be punished for the individual's sins.
  • From Or HaChayyim, (Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, Morocco, 1696-1743) - My explanation of this passage is that it is the words which the Israelites spoke in response to Moses' previous warning. They affirmed that they would not be held liable for the hidden sins of individuals, but they agreed to accept responsibility for each others' public wrongdoing. Also, in this verse, the Israelites accepted this covenantal responsibility as an eternal one binding on all generations, in response to Moses' assertion that God made this covenant with them and their future generations. (See the beginning of the Torah portion, 29:13-14.)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How/could this verse be used as the moral and spiritual basis for the legal distinction between public standards and people's private behavior?
  2. Even if we do not take literally the idea that God will search and root out people who plan to do evil in secret, what does this idea teach us about God's presence in our lives? From the Torah's perspective, are we ever really alone, shielded from God? How/do you think God watches our actions and thoughts?
  3. The philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught that in any society few are guilty yet all are responsible. Discuss this idea.
  4. How would you respond to someone who says, "Why should I accept the laws and responsibilities of Judaism? Just because I was born Jewish, no one asked me if I wanted to take all of this upon myself!" (Hint: you might use the analogy of American citizenship requiring that we accept the constitution, even though we were not part of the founding fathers' initial debates.)
  5. For fun and edification: over the Hebrew words for US AND OUR CHILDREN TO ALWAYS, lanu u-l'vaneinu a(d), in the Torah scroll you will find what scholars call diacritical marks, little markings that are used by ancient traditions to indicate an important explanation of or insight about those words. Ask your rabbi, cantor, ritual director, or educational director to show you these marks in the Torah. What are they there for? (Tradition says they indicate that the Israelites' responsibility for revealed, public sins did not commence until they entered the land of Canaan and became fully a people.)

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion with Commentaries

See I set before you this day life and good, death and evil. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life - so that you and your offspring may live -- by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him… (30:15-16, 19-20a)

  • From Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1105), To Deuteronomy - SEE I SET BEFORE YOU THIS DAY LIFE AND GOOD, DEATH AND EVIL: One is dependent upon the other. If you do good you will receive life, and if you do evil you will receive death. After this warning, Scripture continues with the details of how this will happen.
  • From Sefer Kli Yakar, (Torah commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz, 1550-1619) - SEE I SET BEFORE YOU THIS DAY LIFE AND GOOD, DEATH AND EVIL: Should you ask why the Torah did not place the word "good" before the word "life," given that doing good leads to more life, the answer is this. (By placing those two words in that order, Moses) admonishes us that we should not try to do good so that we can receive life as our reward. We are alive so that we can do good.
  • From The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 1:7 - CHOOSE LIFE: Rabbi Yishmael taught that "life" means livelihood. On the basis of this interpretation, our sages taught that a person must teach his child a livelihood. If the parent doesn't teach the child, then the child must teach himself. Why? To fulfill the words that follow: SO THAT YOU (AND YOUR OFFSPRING) MAY LIVE. CHOOSE LIFE: Rabbi Akiva interpreted these words to refer to the obligation of a parent to teach his child to swim. If the parent fails to teach him, the child must teach himself. Why? To fulfill the words that follow: SO THAT YOU (AND YOUR OFFSPRING) MAY LIVE.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Commentators before and after Rashi deal with the problem of why bad things happen to good people by deferring the divine rewards of life and blessing to the afterlife. If we do good we can be assured of joyous eternal life even if our lives on earth are miserable. What/do you believe about an afterlife? Do you see it as a legitimate and comforting aspect of Jewish faith or as a way of avoiding the problems of evil and suffering?
  2. Rashi follows in the great tradition of Deuteronomy which emphasizes keeping the covenant in order to receive God's reward. How else can we understand the connection between doing good and being rewarded with life?
  3. The Kli Yakar's insight about the order of the words "life" and good" seems to reverse the Torah's initial teaching: we don't do good in order to receive the rewards of a good life from God, we live so that we can do good. This interpretation echoes an earlier rabbinic teaching that the reward of doing one mitzvah is the opportunity to do another one. Is it better for religion to emphasize disinterested piety, doing what is right with no expectation of getting anything in return? Is the whole point of religion to hold out promise and hope that human action will lead to blessing and long life?
  4. Think about who or what in his society Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim may have been addressing with his comment. (Hint: his sermons were famous for attacking wealthy people who believed they were superior as a result of their financial power.)
  5. Rabbis Yishmael and Akiva were friends and contemporaries. Note how they bring our words about choosing life down to a very practical level: we physically choose life for ourselves and our children by giving them and ourselves the tools for survival. Our sages mention livelihood and swimming as two tools of survival. Given the challenges of today's world, what other tools of survival are we obligated as families and as a society to give to our children? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing in our obligations?

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