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Torah Sparks

September 24, 2011 – 25 Elul 5771

Annual: Deut. 29:9 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial: Deut. 29:9 – 30:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1181; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Parashat Nitzavim opens with the entire Israelite nation present at the ratification of the covenant with God: Israel is to be God’s people, the Lord Israel’s God. The covenant is accepted as binding on “those who are not with us here this day” – that is, it is binding also on future generations. Severe sanctions are pronounced against any who would contemplate excluding themselves from the covenanted community by neglecting its terms. Moses dramatically concludes these admonitions by saying that hidden sins will be redressed by God directly, while overt violations will be dealt with by the community, whose members would keep each other accountable for their collective covenantal responsibility.

A counterpoint to Moses’ dire hortatory is provided in the prospect of divine forgiveness and redemption, favor and restoration, both spiritual and material, that awaits those Israelites – and the nation as whole – who, although erring, return to God and the covenantal mission.

The first of the day’s two Torah portions ends with the assurance that the terms of God’s instruction are accessible. No intercessor is required, and fidelity to God’s plan and covenant is a matter of free will. Israel is adjured to “choose life” through submission to the divine will, to embrace the covenant, to choose the path to God’s blessing.

Vayelech begins with Moses, ever the visionary leader, preparing his people for national continuity after his death. The Israelites need not fear – God will champion their cause. Joshua will assume national leadership. God reveals, though, that Israel will go astray after Moses’ death. Moses writes down God’s “teaching” – most likely that is the Deuteronomic law – which he delivers to the levitical priests. They are instructed to read the “teaching” to the assembled people Israel every seven years during Sukkot. This will serve to reintroduce future generations, who, unlike the generation of the Exodus, did not experience God’s redemption and miracles personally. This will allow them to learn devotion to God and to embrace the covenant anew.

God also has Moses (possibly with Joshua’s assistance) write out a poetic message adjuring Israel to faithfulness. This poem is to be taught to the Israelites. The nation is convoked for this very purpose; Joshua is formally charged by his prophetic predecessor: “Be strong and resolute!” While the biblical text is somewhat ambiguous and subject to divergent readings, Moses’ written record of God’s teaching (it stands to reason, the law we know as Deuteronomy’s, though some would insist, the poem itself) is placed beside the Ark of the Covenant for future consultation and testimony. From God’s command to Moses to “write this song,” the rabbis derive the final mitzvah of the Torah: for every Jew to write a Sefer Torah. (Mercifully and instructively, the rabbis teach that we may fulfill this divine imperative by participating in such an undertaking by appointing a scribe as our agent, or by acquiring an appropriate personal library of sacred texts.)

The poem itself, comprising parashat Haazinu, is introduced with the final verse of parashat Vayelech. It is a covenantal cliff-hanger!

Theme #1: “Up Close and Personal”

“Surely, this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Parashat Nitzvavim

Study: Derash

“We are not a religion of intercessors, saints, and hierarchies of gods. There is nothing between us and the Deity. The Torah exists, and we as Jews are not only free, not only encouraged, but constitutionally disposed, to debate it and interpret it. Yet we are told that there was no one like Moses, and there never will be again. We need not aspire to that post – the position has been filled. Each Jew since Moses has an absolutely equal share in the Torah and the word of God. ‘It is not in Heaven, where we must send someone’ to hear it for us.” David Mamet

“It is the daring hero of the pagan epic who, unlike ordinary men, makes bold to climb the sky or cross the great sea to bring back the hidden treasures of the divine realm – as Gilgamesh crosses the sea in an effort to bring back the secret of immortality. This mythological and heroic era, the Deuteronomist now proclaims, is at an end, for God’s word, inscribed in a book, has become the intimate property of every person.” Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses

“A hunter came to the Tanna Elijah and lamented that Heaven had not endowed him with the mental ability required to study Torah. Said Elijah to the hunter: ‘Has not Heaven given you sufficient intelligence to gather flax, set up snares and trap animals? Why, then, should you not have enough intelligence to understand the Law, of which it is written: “The thing is very close to you.”’? By this he meant to tell him: ‘You were not born with all the skills of hunting and trapping, were you? It was only the need to earn a living that caused you to go and learn to hunt. Do you not think that if you had felt the same inner drive to study Torah, if you had felt as great a need for the Torah as you do for earning a livelihood so that you would have gone out after it and striven to acquire it even as you went out to acquire your other skills, you would be as skillful today at study as you are at hunting and trapping?’” Ohel Torah

“That thou mayest do it. Moses did not say it is easy, ‘but more justly and finely, that it carries with it the conscience and provocation to its fulfillment by man.’” Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, citing G.A. Smith

Questions for Discussion

In his memorable phrase, David Mamet insists that Jews are “constitutionally disposed” to debate and interpret the Torah, that each and every Jew has “an absolutely equal share in the Torah and the word of God.” Does that mean all interpretations of the Torah are equally valid, equally correct, or equally true to the text? It is true that none of us is Moses – but how are we to determine which religious perspectives are to be embraced and honored? How does Mamet’s statement compare to the assertion in the U.S. Declaration of Independence – it was considered to be a “self-evident truth” – that “All men are created equal”?

Professor Alter treats the stated accessibility of the Torah – of God’s word – as a moral revolution of historic proportions, transcending the elitism and exclusivity of the ancient pagan world. How does this element of Jewish life contrast with other religious faiths and perspectives among neighboring faiths even today? If the Torah’s accessibility is, indeed, revolutionary, subversive, what is our moral and spiritual responsibility in maintaining that human advance?

Rabbi Hertz teaches that the Torah is do-able, as it were, but not “easy.” Is he referring to intellectual mastery through study, observance and practice, or both? Is the fact that Judaism makes no claim to being “easy” (and therefore demands of us considerable “inner drive”) a virtue or a shortcoming of our religious tradition?

Why do you think the parable in Ohel Torah identifies the Jew being counseled by Rabbi Elijah as a hunter by occupation? What qualities of the hunter are relevant to the search for spiritual meaning in Torah study? Or is the hunter being used as an example of a Jew at considerable odds with the values of his religious tradition?

Is the Torah’s self-description as “very close to you” – as eminently accessible – more or less valid in the twenty-first century?

Theme #2: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace”

“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.” Deuteronomy 31:7, Parashat Vayelech

Study: Derash

“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.” David Ben-Gurion “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill

“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.” Ronald Reagan

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Mark Twain “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Mahatma Gandhi

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. We must do that which we think we cannot.” Eleanor Roosevelt

“Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” Henry Ward Beecher

Questions for Discussion

Which of the views of strength and courage quoted here most closely approximates the message Moses was conveying to Joshua? When did Moses demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) courage, strength, or resolve in his own life and leadership? What other advice would you have expected Moses to give his chosen successor at this moment of transition in power?

Ben-Gurion includes in his definition of courage “the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared.” What do you think the founding prime minister of Israel had in mind? What should Israelis (and those who support and care for Israel) most fear today? What ought concerned and courageous Jews living in the diaspora most fear about their own communities and well being? What do you most fear? How is this a function of personal courage?

Was President Reagan correct? Is moral courage more formidable than any weapon that unprincipled enemies may deploy against us? Would an Israeli leader have made the same statement? How might Mahatma Gandhi have responded to or refined the president’s formulation? What is the difference between “moral courage” and “indomitable will”?

What qualities in addition to courage and resolve are indispensable in a leader? In a leader of the Jewish state? In a Jewish religious leader?

What is the significance of Moses delivering this charge to Joshua “in the sight of all Israel” rather than in a private setting? If such a “summit” did take place, how might Moses have expanded on his theme?

Historic Note

On September 24, 2011 we read, in Deuteronomy 30:3-5, “God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there he will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it.” On September 24, 1950, Operation Magic Carpet was completed, as two planes carrying the last Jews airlifted from Yemen landed in Israel’s Lod (later re-named Ben- Gurion) Airport.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Selichot are penitential prayers recited in the period leading up to the High Holy Days and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sefardim recite Selichot from the beginning of the month of Elul. The Ashkenazi practice is to begin Selichot on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. If Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, however, the recitation of Selichot begins on Sunday of the preceding week. There are thus always at least four days during which Selichot prayers are offered. This standard has been related to the four-day period required for inspection of sacrificial offerings in the Temple, during which disqualifying blemishes could be identified. As we approach the High Holy Days, we, too, examine ourselves for disqualifying blemishes, so that our sacrifice – our fasting, repentance and introspection – may be acceptable and fit, as it were, for God’s altar. There is a widespread practice of beginning Selichot at (or around) midnight on Saturday night, as this is considered more practical and inviting (and therefore more likely) than early Sunday morning repentance. (See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:1, Rema and Be’er Hetev, ad loc.)

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