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Torah Sparks

September 4, 2010 - 25 Elul 5770

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

Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

According to tradition, this is the last day of Moses' life. He speaks to the people, reminding them 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 will punish 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 their 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.”

Moses then tells the people that now it is time for Joshua to succeed him. They should not be afraid, because God will continue to be with them as they conquer the Canaanites, just as He was with them when they conquered the Amorites. Moses then charges Joshua in the sight of all Israel.

Moses writes down the Torah (or perhaps parts of Deuteronomy) and gives it to the priests and the elders. He tells them that at Sukkot every seventh year they are to assemble the people and read the Torah to them.

God now calls to Moses and tells him that it is almost time for him to die. God instructs Moses to bring Joshua to the tent of meeting to hear God's instructions. God tells Moses that in the future the people will break the covenant and turn to alien gods, so that God will become angry and “hide His countenance” from them. Therefore, Moses is to write down a poem (which is found in Ha-azinu) and teach it to the people. It will remind them of God's promise and their disloyalty and prompt them to repent.

1. Leadership Development

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them.”... And He charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 31:23)

  1. “You shall go with this people” - Moses said to Joshua: The elders of the generation will be with you; (act) entirely in accordance with their understanding and their counsel. But the Holy Blessed One said to Joshua: “You shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them” - Bring them in (even) against their will, everything depends upon you. Take a rod and smite their heads; one leader for a generation, and not two leaders for a generation. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France])
  2. How could Moshe Our Teacher, when speaking to Yehoshua, have changed the words of the language used by the Almighty? How could Moshe have said, “You will go” when the Holy Blessed One said, “You shall bring”? Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman answered this with the following explanation: Both are the words of the living God - both are correct. There is truth and justice in both versions quoted in the Torah. On the one hand, it is clear that the leader of the generation has to listen to the opinion and counsel of the elders and sages. However, the leader, having heard the opinions of the advisers, must then show leadership ability and decide on a course of action. If the leader does not do that, then chaos will reign in the land and “every man will do that which is right in his own eyes.” (Simcha Raz, The Torah's Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 385)

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi points out an apparent contradiction between the words Moses spoke to Joshua and those spoken by God. Rabbi Wasserman explains that there is no contradiction here, but rather a description of the process of leadership - a leader should consult his or her advisors but then must make the final decision alone. Do you think this is a good model of leadership for a shul? For a business? For a country? What are the dangers and benefits resulting from a leader who follows only one of these approaches? Do you think that elected officials and those whom they appoint should follow the will of the people as expressed in polls and other instruments, or should they act according to their own judgment? Why?

2. First Things First

The Lord said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die. (Deuteronomy 31:14)

  1. No man when about to die can say, “I will send my slave in my stead.” Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: No man can make weapons which will save him from the Angel of Death... No man has the power to say [to the Angel of Death]: “Wait for me until I have made up my accounts” or “until I have set my house in order, and then I will come.” ...Lo, after all the greatness that Moses had enjoyed, when the day of his death came, he could not hold it back. Forthwith God said to him: “The time is drawing near for you to die.”
  2. Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “But does a person know on what day he is going to die?” “All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow. In this manner, a person's whole life will be spent in repentance.” (Talmud Shabbat 153a)
  3. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall leave this world and how any shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted. (Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, The Rabbinical Assembly, p. 241)
  4. Even Kohelet, cynic of cynics, proclaims, “God will hold you to account for everything you have not done and could have” (Eccles. 11:9). The Days of Awe are days for self-judgment. Celebrating life, we also judge the quality of our lives. Made aware as at no other time of how short life is, we ask ourselves the most difficult questions: During this past year, have we learned what we needed to? Have we helped others? Have we done enough? Have we created anything? Are we satisfied with what we have accomplished, with what we are? Where would we like to be when this season comes round again next year? (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days, p. xiii)

Sparks for Discussion

One of the major themes of the Yamim Nora'im (the High Holy Days) is that none of us knows how much time we will be given, so we must use that time well. If you knew that you had only one day, one week, or one month to live, how would you reorder your priorities? What are you waiting for?

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