Sermons and Parsha'iot            Parshat Nitzavim: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20, 
                                       Parshat Va-Yeylech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

Summary

In this portion, Moses concludes his second farewell speech to the people. He tells the Israelites that "you are standing (in Hebrew "nitzavim") this day before Adonai your God . from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, to enter into the covenant with Adonai your God." This covenant binds the Israelites to God and God to the Israelites and was made not only with those present that day but with all Israel, past, present and future.

In the rest of chapter 29, Moses predicts that the people who secretly believe they can break the covenant will turn away from God to worship idols. He describes the punishments that the Israelites will suffer because of this, including dispersion, plagues, and diseases - indeed, the land will look like Sodom and Gomorrah. Ultimately, according to Moses, the people will repent and Adonai will take them back in love, bringing them back to the Land and all its blessings. But chapter 30 promises that, even after being driven from the land because of our sins, if we atone and return to God's covenant, God will return us to the land and reward us. Verses 11-15 note: "For this commandment which I command you today is not incomprehensible for you, nor is it far off. It's not in heaven to say, `Who will go up for us to heaven and take it for us and cause us to hear it that we may do it?' Nor is it across the sea to say, `Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us and cause us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death, and evil . therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed."

Commentary

  • How can a contract or covenant made many, many centuries ago, obligate all future generations to honor its terms? Rabbi Meir taught the following Midrash to explain the concept of inherited covenant: When the Israelites came to the mountains of Sinai to receive the Torah, they discovered that God was not willing to give it without proof that they would cherish this precious gift. So God said to Israel: "Give Me guarantors that you will treasure My Torah." The people of Israel said: "Our ancestors will be our guarantors." God answered: "They are not sufficient. I have found fault with your ancestors. They would need guarantors for themselves!" The Israelites spoke again: "If You will not accept our ancestors, accept our Prophets - they will vouch for us." But God answered: " I have found fault with your prophets as well. They too would need their own guarantors. You may try one more time." The Israelites, newly freed from the slavery of Egypt, looked up to the heavens and said to God: "If You will give us Your Torah, we will offer You our children." And God said: "Since you offer Me your children, I will give you My Torah." (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:4) 

  • Note that the Hebrew root shin-vav-bet, meaning to "turn," "return," or "repent," occurs seven times in the first 10 verses of chapter 30. This portion has been adopted as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning by many Reform congregations. (The traditional reading describes the sacrificial ritual of the scapegoat.) 

  • One of the most famous stories in the Talmud is that of the "Oven of Achnai." On the surface it is about whether a certain type of oven is susceptible to ritual impurity. On a deeper level, the question is who has the authority to decide Jewish Law - whether it is "in the heavens" or here on earth.

    According to the story, Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument to support  his position, but the rest of the sages disagreed with him.Said he to them: " If the Halachah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" thereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place- others affirm, four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: "If the Halachah agrees with me let the stream of water prove it." Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged "If the Halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them saying: "When scholars are engaged in halachic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence they did not fall in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright position in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them, "If the Halachah agrees with me, let it be proved by Heaven." Whereupon a Heavenly voice cried out: "Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the Halachah agrees with him." But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: "it is not in Heaven" (Deuteronomy 30:12). What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yermiah said: "That the Torah had already been given at Mt. Sinai; therefore we pay no attention to a Heavenly voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, `One must follow the majority'" (Exodus 23:2)

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Nitzavim is usually read as a double portion with Vayalech, on either the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah or on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How might hearing this portion just before the High Holy Days affect you personal preparation for this time of teshuvah

  2. In the Midrash, God finally agrees to give the Torah to the Israelites on the condition that their children (future generations) will be the guarantors. A guarantor is someone who ensures that a promise or a covenant is kept. How should a good guarantor behave in terms of Jewish life and traditions? In what ways has your family acted as good guarantors? Have you been a good guarantor? What do you expect of your descendents? How can you help others be good guarantors? 

  3. In Deuteronomy 30:12 Moses says, "It (the Torah) is not in the heavens." What do you think this means? Where, ideally, can Torah be found? Verse 14 tells us "the thing (Torah) is very close to you, in your heart and your mouth . " How is your heart and mouth devoted to Torah? How can our hearts and mouths leads us in our observance of the laws of Torah? 

Summary

This one of the shortest Torah portions in the Torah, and it is almost always paired with parshat NitzavimVa-yelech means "and he went." This refers to Moses when he went before the people to speak to them of his impending death and the transfer of leadership. Moses had led this people for 40 years and he wanted to prepare them for the changes they would be facing. Joshua son of Nun will bring them into the Land. Moses assures them that Adonai will go with them, and he encourages them and Joshua to "be strong and resolute."After completing the writing of this "Teaching" (which is the literal meaning of the word "Torah"), Moses gives it to the Levites and to all the elders of Israel. Moses instructs them to read this Teaching aloud to the entire community of Israel - men, women and children - every seventh year when they gather to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. In this parasha Moses tells the people that he is too old to be their leader any more. Moses has led the Israelites for 40 years, beginning with the exodus from Egypt. Imagine yourself as an Israelite. How would you react to his announcement? What reassurances would you need from Moses about your new leader?

  2. Just as Moses became too old to lead, are there any roles or responsibilities that you have outgrown as you have matured? Who decided you were too old for the activity or experience? Discuss the circumstances and experiences.