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Torah Sparks

September 27, 2008 – 27 Elul 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial Cycle: 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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

According to tradition, Moses is speaking on the last day of his life. He reminds the people that they are entering into a covenant with God and that those who violate that covenant will be punished severely.

Moses also tells the people that even as God punishes their disobedience He will not abandon them. When they learn from what has happened to them and return to God in repentance, God will welcome them lovingly and bring them back from their exile.

Moses encourages the people, telling them that God’s commandments are not too difficult or beyond reach. Rather, they are very close, so that every Jew has the ability to observe them.

Moses concludes: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”


No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe [literally, to do] it. (Devarim 30:14)

  1. You do not fulfill your obligation by that which is in your mouth and in your heart. That which is in your mouth and your heart is for you to do. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)
  2. The people of Israel said to Moshe “You have said to us that ‘it is not in heaven and neither is it beyond the ocean’ – so where is it?” Moshe said to them “It t is very close to you -- in your mouth and in your heart, to observe [literally, to do] it – it is very near to you.” (Devarim Rabbah 8)

    It happens very often that people think that keeping the Torah and mitzvot are beyond their capabilities – beyond their reach. Thus the concise answer comes to teach us “It is in a very close place.” A person might think that the greatness in Divine attributes is that they are impossible to achieve. Such a person looks heavenwards longingly toward things that seem beyond all grasp, thinking: “I wish I could go up to the sky and bring down these Divine attributes.” But this is not the case. We learn that the greatness in these Divine attributes is in the fact that they are in fact attainable for a person willing to have an open heart with which to receive them. (Simcha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah,” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 381)
  3. The rabbis say: The fool enters the synagogue, and seeing there people occupying themselves with Torah he asks: “How does a man begin to learn Torah?” They answer him: “First a man reads from a scroll [with selections from the Torah], then the sefer Torah, and then the prophets and then the writings; when he has completed the study of the scriptures he learns the Talmud and then the halakhah and then the aggada.” After hearing all this [the fool] says to himself, “When can I learn all this?” and he turns back from the gate. . . . But the man who is wise – what does he do? He learns one chapter every day until he completes the whole Torah. God said: “[It] is not too baffling for you, but if [you find it] too difficult, it is your own fault, because you did not study it.” (Devarim Rabbah 8:3)
  4. Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz commented on this that the Torah tells us that regardless of how far away one is, if he is sincerely resolved to become a better person, he will be able to make an immediate transformation of himself. When you make a verbal commitment to the Almighty and to yourself to become a changed person, your very words put you into a different place than where you were before.

    Of course, if you just say that you will change without actually improving your behavior, you have not sincerely changed. But the words you tell yourself have a major influence on your behavior. In whatever area you wish to improve, if you keep repeating over and over to yourself how you will act from now on, you will notice practical changes. Your verbal and mental suggestions are very close to you, all you need is a firm decision to make this effort. Once you have made this decision, you will be successful as long as you keep up that original resolve of yours.

    There are some people, however, who keep making pledges and resolutions to make positive changes but do not actually carry out their plans. They have created a credibility gap for themselves. Since they have already said they would change and have not done so, they are likely not to really believe themselves. To overcome this, one needs action and consistency. Just as you should keep your word when you give it to someone else, so too you should keep your word to yourself. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “Growth Through Torah,” p. 456)

Sparks for Discussion

We always read Nitzavim on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. During the Yamim Nora’im [the High Holy Days], many people will resolve to change their ways, to improve their relationships with God and with other people. When people make their resolutions, they are heartfelt. People do want to change. But too often, nothing changes and people repeat the same resolutions on the following Rosh Hashanah.

Do you believe that people can change? Why do you think that some people insist that real change is impossible? How do these commentaries teach that a person should go about making changes in his or her life? Is this realistic? What changes do you intend to make in the coming year?

2. A Good Person

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day [ha-yom]: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live. (Devarim 30:19)

  1. Why did Moses stress that he was placing these choices before the people “today”? Perhaps this word’s message is that each and every day of our lives, the same choices Moses described stand before us to be confronted anew. Certainly someone whose behavior has been improper until now is obligated to choose the path of good for the future. But even someone who has already chosen that path and remained firmly on it may not rely on his past performance to guarantee that he will continue to do good, and must make his choice afresh “today” and every day, because every day the path of evil and death also stands before him. Every day, therefore, he must once again consciously choose the good. (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “Darash Moshe,” p. 323)
  2. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said: Even if a man is perfectly righteous all his life, but rebels in the end, he annuls the [good] deeds he had previously performed, as is said, “The righteousness of the righteous shall not save him when he transgresses” (Ezekiel 33:12). And conversely, even if a man was completely wicked, but then resolved on penitence, his wickedness is never mentioned to him again, as is said, “nor shall the wickedness of the wicked cause him to stumble when he turns back from his wickedness” (ibid.). (Kiddushin 40b)
  3. [Moses] returns to exhort them yet again, to tell them that there are two courses in their hands and it is in their power to walk in whichever they desire, and there is no power below or above that will withhold them or stop them... (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  4. Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Shimon said: The world is judged by the majority [of its deeds], and an individual is likewise judged by the majority [of his deeds]. A man should therefore always regard himself and the world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he performs one good deed, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward the side of merit; if he commits even one transgression, woe to him, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward the scale of guilt. (Talmud Kiddushin 40b)

Sparks for Discussion

The word ha-yom, today, appears 12 times in the 40 verses of Nitzavim. What is the significance of this word? Do you consider this hopeful or worrisome? What does ha-yom teach us about how we should live a good life?

It is not uncommon to hear the friends and relatives of someone who has done something terribly wrong – perhaps struck and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk – say, “oh, but he’s really a good person.” Might you consider the drunk driver a good person? Would your opinion change if he had previously been arrested for drunk driving? What does it mean to be a good person?

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