August 31, 2013 – 25 Elul 5773
Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 (Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 31:7-31:30 (Etz Hayim p. 1174; Hertz p. 888)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:1-63:9 (Etz Hayim p. 1181; Hertz p. 883)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)
Parashat Nitzavim opens with the entire Israelite nation present at the confirmation, 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, also on future generations. Severe sanctions are pronounced against any who would contemplate excluding themselves from the covenanted community by neglecting its terms. Moses concludes these admonitions stating hidden sins will be redressed by God, while overt violations will be dealt with by the community, who would keep each other accountable for their collective covenantal responsibility.
A counterpoint to Moses' hortatory is provided in the prospect of divine forgiveness and redemption, both spiritual and material, that awaits those – and the nation as whole – who, although erring, returns to God and the covenantal mission.
The first parasha ends with the assurance God's instruction is accessible, no intercessor required; fidelity to God's will is a matter of free will. Israel is adjured to "choose life," to embrace the Covenant, to choose the path to God's blessing.
Parashat Vayelech begins with Moses preparing his people for national continuity following his death. The Israelites need not fear: God will champion their cause; Joshua will assume national leadership. They are instructed to read the "Teaching" to the assembled People Israel every seven years, during Sukkot in order to reintroduce future generations, to God's redemption and miracles, to learn devotion to God and to embrace the Covenant anew.
God also has Moses write out a poetic message adjuring Israel to faithfulness. 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 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.
Theme #1: "...and Mr. Hide"
"Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching." (Deuteronomy 29:28 – Nitzvavim)
"Redemption will be ushered in by two distinct eras. The first is the 'concealed one,' the time ordained for the actual coming of our deliverance, which is known only to God. But there is also another era which will be 'revealed' (made 'overt') and known before us: an era which will begin when the Jewish people will repent of their sins... The Messiah might come this very day, if only we would heed the voice of God. When this day will come depends entirely on us and our deeds." (Ketav Sofer)
"In scrolls and printed volumes of the Torah (humashim), dots appear above some of the letters in this challenging verse. The dots, which probably indicate the Sages' perplexity over this verse, have prompted several interpretations: God will punish secret sins, but society must punish sins committed openly (Targum). We cannot always understand God's will, but we must do what we are called on to do nonetheless (or do what we can understand and accept)... And most imaginatively: Anonymous saints are a source of pleasure to God, but society needs role models whose virtuous lives escape anonymity and are conspicuous, that we might learn from them (Meir Yehiel of Ostrowiec)." (Humash Etz Hayyim)
"The revealed world is for us. Within that world, we get to make choices about how we will behave and we are given some assurances about the outcomes we should expect, good and bad... The Torah has given us a basic moral structure... and it is up to us to implement it... The hidden world, though, is not ours. There is an aspect of reality over which we have no control... We cannot control the millions of seemingly random variables that effect our lives—what unforeseeable events will test us, challenge us, or torment us. Part of life is learning to accept that we don't get to control everything. Part of how the world works is hidden from us. It belongs to God. The greatest test of human character is how we reconcile these two ideas. What do we do with the power we have to affect the world? Do we use it for good or evil? How do we deal with the things that are beyond our control? ...Sometimes the best thing we can do is to accept what is real and what is true." (Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser)
"In the most intimate, hidden and innermost ground of the soul, God is always essentially, actively, and substantially present. Here the soul possesses everything by grace which God possesses by nature." (Johannes Tauler)
Questions for Discussion
There is a difference between the assertion that "we must do what we are called on to do" and the idea that we should "do what we can understand and accept." How does the latter reflect a covenantal theology? Is it a defensible understanding of our verse in the grander context of the parashah? Is it consonant with the principles of Conservative Judaism? Is there virtue in submitting ourselves even to aspects of our Tradition which we may not fully understand? Or concerning which we may be less than fully enthusiastic?
Is the idea that there is a "hidden" world that "belongs to God" comforting? Satisfying? Does it strengthen or threaten your faith? How does the hidden nature of redemption relate to the divine responsibility for punishing hidden sin?
When have you acted virtuously in anonymity? Did that magnify or limit the impact of your act? How does Rabbi Yehiel's dictum regarding "anonymous saints" relate to financial support of worthy causes? Is anonymity and privacy a greater virtue than public giving? Is this prospective influence on others what generally motivates public givers? In what areas of Jewish life is "conspicuous (i.e. very public) virtue" most valuable?
Theme #2: "Go Tell It of the Mountain"
"Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess." (Deuteronomy 31:13 – Vayelekh)
"and that their children... may hear, and learn. Their presence in such an assembly would mean their initiation into the knowledge of the Torah, and of the duties which it prescribes. Here we have another instance of the vital importance of religious education, so characteristic of the Book of the Farewell Orations of the Lawgiver" (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)
"your children... That is, your children who have not known, have not witnessed, all these great signs and portents that you have seen with your own eyes." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)
"Their children, too... That is, especially their children, who have not had the experiences of the present generation, need to hear of those experiences and the lessons they taught... Singling out the effect of the reading on the children reflects Deuteronomy's repeated concern with shaping their character and Moses' present concern with preparing for the future." (Jeffrey Tigay)
"There is no greater reward than having our children participate in the gathering of the Jewish people, even if they are too young to understand what is happening. We toil for many years planting the seeds that will nourish others." (Rabbi Jay Kelman)
"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."(Nelson Mandela)
"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." (James Baldwin)
Questions for Discussion
Jews under 50 years of age do not remember the State of Israel before the victory in the Six Day War and the concomitant unification of Jerusalem. Jews under 70 do not personally recall a world without a sovereign Jewish State! What is the effect on "those who have not had the experience" of these "great signs and portents"? What is the impact on Jewish communal life and politics? What steps need be taken to address this experiential gap? For a vast majority of the Jewish world, the Holocaust is, similarly, "merely" history, rather than a personal memory. What is the proper form – and objectives – of Holocaust education... and to whom is it properly directed?
What about the Book of Deuteronomy might account for its unique focus on "initiation" of the younger generation? "Nourishing" and "shaping the character" of our children?
Were he to contemplate our verse, what would Nelson Mandela say about the "soul" of Jewish society?
Consider the dilemma identified by Baldwin. How are we most effectively to communicate through our actions alone the significance, lessons, and the moral and spiritual mandates of our history?
At the end of parashat Vayelekh, read in conjunction with parashat Nitzavim on August 31, 2013, Moses is instructed by God to "write down this poem (or "song," shirah) and teach it to the people of Israel... in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel." On August 31, 1976, George Harrison was found guilty of having plagiarized his song "My Sweet Lord" from Ronnie Mack's 1963 hit, "He's So Fine."
There is a widespread and commendable custom of visiting the graves of loved ones (especially parents) and "Tzadikim" in the days preceding Rosh Hashanah (See BT Ta'anit 16A; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:4). This serves as a cogent reminder of our own mortality. The practice, known as "Kever Avot," is also understood to add the merit of the deceased to our own, thereby enhancing the efficacy of our Holiday prayers (See Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 5:43-6). Other authorities hold that one may (while not praying to the deceased) ask the departed to intercede with God through prayers on our behalf (See Pri Megadim, Orach Chaim 581:16 and Maharam Shick Orach Chaim 293). It should be noted that through such cemetery visits we also attend to the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av V'Em – honoring our parents – a religious and moral duty that endures even after their death.