PARASHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH - SELIHOT
September 16, 2006 – 23 Elul 5766
Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 30:1 – 31:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 1169; Hertz p. 880)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This short double portion contains some of the most beautiful passages in the entire book of Deuteronomy. Nitzavim begins with these words: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God.” Every Israelite from the highest political leaders to the woodchoppers and water drawers, men, women, and children, all were present when God made the covenant with the people. There is a warning of the punishments that will occur if someone turns aside from the covenant. It doesn’t matter if the actions are overt or covert – openly performed actions are clear to everyone, but God can see what is done in secret. God will return the Israelites to the Torah and open up their hearts. They are told the Torah is not too baffling for then nor beyond their reach. It is not in the heavens nor over the seas; it is very close. God has set before the Israelites a choice of life or death, a blessing or a curse. The passage concludes with the famous line “Therefore choose life.” The first portion ends with the reminder that if the Israelites heed God’s commands and hold fast to him, they will long endure upon the soil that God gave to them.
Vayelech begins with Moses noting that he is now 120 years old and unable to come and go as he used to. He reminds the Israelites that they will conquer the land. He then calls on Joshua, who will take over the leadership of the people, and reminds him to be strong and resolute. Moses writes down the teaching and gives it to the priest who will carry it in the Ark of the Covenant.
Moses commands the people to gather once every seven years at the feast of Booths – Sukkot -- for a public reading of the Torah. This ruling became the basis for the public reading in every synagogue on Shabbat mornings and eventually Shabbat afternoons and Monday and Thursday mornings. Moses’ time to die is coming, and he writes a poem to teach the people Israel. It tells the story of how the Israelites will forsake the covenant, God will turn His face, but eventually God will return to the people. Most scholars believe the poem is parashat Haazinu.
Issue #1 - Life and Death
“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 you and your offspring will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
- This week’s portion sets before us the choice between life and death. Over and over on the High Holidays, which start next week, we call God the “God of life.” What is life and what is death, and what is the role of God? We say over and over on through to Yom Kippur, zochreinu lechaim, melech hafetz bechaim, vekatveinu besefer chaim lema’ancha elohim chaim. “Remember us for Life, King Who loves Life and write us in the Book of Life for Your sake, God of Life.” We identify God with life.
- What is death? Death is the most natural force in the universe. Scientists call it entropy. What is entropy? It begins with a question -- is the universe a perpetual motion machine? Does it keep going and going, like the Energizer bunny? Or will the universe eventually wear down and grind to a halt? The answer is an absolute scientific law, discovered by 19th-century German scientist Rudolf Clausius. All systems eventually wear down. Or as the poet W.B. Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” All things, rocks and mountains, human beings, planets and suns, the universe itself, eventually wear down and die. The natural world is a dying world. The prophet Isaiah already said it thousands of years ago: “All the heavens shall wither like a leaf withering on the vine, or the shriveled fruit on a fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4).
- How does entropy work? If I hold my cold hand over a hot cup of coffee, my hand warms up and the coffee cools down. We can always make hot things hotter. We do that as we cook and that requires energy. We can always make cold things colder. That is how refrigerators work and that requires energy. Without introducing additional energy, all things wear down, fall apart, and die. That is the way the universe works.
- What is life? Life is anti-entropy at work in the universe. It is the force that begins with chaos and turns to order. A most striking image of life comes from the prophet Ezekiel. He saw a valley filled with bones, a valley of death, the natural result of entropy. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and they grew flesh and sinews. He prophesied again, and a wind came “and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host” (Ezekiel 37:10). This prophetic vision is anti-entropy at work, showing a spiritual force that overcomes death.
- We recognize that both life and death are part of the natural cycle. Is the force of life in the universe proof of the existence of God? As we approach the High Holy Day season, can we say “any life is good”? Do we feel that is the case?
Issue #2 – How Long Should We Live?
“I am now 120 years old and I can no longer come and go” (Deuteronomy 31:2)
- The time had come for Moses to die. He had lived the biblical lifespan, 120 years, and now it was time to pass on his leadership to a new generation. According to the book of Genesis, the Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh - let the days allowed him be 120 years.” That is the maximum time allotted to us on this planet. From this grows the Jewish tradition of always saying “until 120” after giving your age.
- The book of Psalms is a bit more realistic about human longevity. “The days of our years are three score and ten years, if granted the strength four score years. Their pride is but travail and vanity, for it is speedily gone and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). This suggests that people are granted between 70 and 80 years, more if you have unique strength or luck. Alas, not all are granted even that much time.
- Our time is limited on this earth. In Genesis the Bible spoke of a tree of life; whoever eats of it will win immortality. But such immortality is beyond our reach as God has sent a special angel to guard that tree, a cherub with a fiery turning sword. No matter how we might appeal, work, or fight, we humans are but mortal. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Whether long or short, each of us is granted a limited amount of time on this earth. The week before Rosh Hashana is the perfect time to ask why God allows us a limited amount of time on this earth. Knowing that we do not have unlimited years, how should we improve the way we use the years we have?