Archive for Nitzavim

Nitzavim: A Call to Return

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there the Holy One will fetch you. (D’varim 30:4)

Good afternoon!

In a few days we’re going to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and while there are myriad interpretations and understandings of the sound of the shofar, I think most would agree that it has something to do with jarring us out of complacency, reminding us to think about what kind of people we want to be, and calling us back to God and our better selves. Jews have been sounding the shofar, with this same basic message of wake up-think-return, for thousands of years, and the message, ever year, is more or less the same: wake up-think-return.

Every year the message of the shofar is the same: wake up-think-return, but every year we, as individuals and as a community, might be complacent about different things or have gotten off track in different ways. The message is more or less the same, but the response is timely, personal and unique. The shofar is not innovative, new, creative, contemporary, technological, ideological, political or much different in 2016 as it was in 1816 or 1016. I would even say that this is precisely its power: in a world obsessed with the latest celebrity tweet and the slightest twitch of the 24-hour news cycle, the shofar is ancient, wise and relevant because it asks not the latest and loudest question but the most important one: how shall we live in the year to come?

This week’s Torah portion, always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, contains beautiful language of return, especially the verse at the top of the page, which can be read not only in its plain sense of geographic return to the land of Israel but also as a metaphor: no matter how far you feel from God, from Torah, from the Jewish community, from your own sense of soul and self, you can return. No matter if you’ve gotten so far astray from your ideals that you feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, you can return. No matter if you feel like an outcast or exile, you can return. No matter if the previous year had mistakes, misfires, misdeeds, or missed opportunities, this year you can return and choose a deeper and holier life.

It’s such a simple message: wake up-think-return, yet simple isn’t the same as easy. Looking within, asking ourselves hard questions, turning ourselves back to the Source- definitely not easy, or comfortable, or quick, or painless. Yet that’s what Jews do, year after year, generation after generation, called back by a technology that’s never needed an update and could not be improved with new features. The shofar will call us: wake up-think-return, and the promise is: return is possible, from the ends of the earth or wherever we think we are. If we but take the first steps back, from there the Holy One will fetch you.

Wishing all of you sweet blessings in the New Year,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.


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Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashana: Not in Heaven

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

“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?’ “ (D’varim 30:12)

Good afternoon!

The verse quoted above is one of the most famous verses in the Torah, as well as the punch-line to one of the most famous stories in the Talmud. It comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which itself comes toward the end of the Book of D’varim [Deuteronomy]. D’varim, in turn depicts the end of Moshe’s life, and his increasingly dramatic exhortations to the Jewish people to follow Torah and keep the covenant after they go on to the Land of Israel without him. Moshe tells the people that the Torah is not far away, nor in the heavens, nor across the sea- but very close to us, so that we may do it.

Our friend Rashi explains “not in the heavens” in a way that seems a bit obvious at first:

“not in the heavens”- for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend [to heaven] to learn it.

It took me a few minutes of pondering Rashi’s seemingly tautological commentary to realize that he’s not talking about geography, as it were, at all, but rather teaching a point of spiritual psychology. It’s not about ascending to the heavens in a physical way, nor even the notion that we’d have to die or go on some spiritual quest to learn Torah; the plain meaning of the verse makes it clear that those aren’t necessary. Rather, what I think Rashi means is that as individuals (and presumably on a communal level too) we don’t have to reach heights of spiritual or religious purity or achievement in order to live fulfilling lives in Torah. You don’t have to “ascend”- that is, be saintly or scholarly or a model of piety- in order to apply Torah to your life in a practical and fruitful way.

If can I borrow the terminology of last year’s social protests, Torah is not for the 1% – the saintly and pious- but for the 99%. It’s for people who make mistakes, who get confused, who fall short, who don’t feel organized or learned or worthy enough to practice Judaism in their lives. At the heart of Torah is the idea of t’shuvah, or return: when we inevitably fall short, or fall apart, or get undone, we can always return. We return to Torah, to community, to our own souls; nobody is perfect, but everybody can return to a place of wholeness.

This is, of course, a central message of the Days of Awe, rapidly approaching. All that a life of Torah requires is a simple decision to start from where we are in that moment and go forward to do the next mitzvah, whether one of prayer, compassion, justice or learning. These days, to learn Torah doesn’t require much more than a cell phone or internet connection (though a synagogue connection is a much deeper form of spiritual broadband!) so there’s no excuse that it’s too far, too complicated, or too hard.

The path to God we call Torah is waiting for us, closer than we realize.

Shabbat Shalom and a blessed New Year,


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Nitzavim: Garments of Righteousness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Friends, we have reached the end of our seven-week cycle of “haftarot
of consolation,” and indeed, we have gone from sitting on the floor,
in sackcloth and ashes (metaphorically if not physically) on Tisha
B’Av, a mere seven weeks ago, to the exultation of imminent redemption
as portrayed by the opening verse of our haftarah:

“I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
My whole being exults in my God.
For He has clothed me with garments of triumph,
Wrapped me in a robe of victory,
Like a bridegroom adorned with a turban,
Like a bride bedecked with her finery.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 61:10)

Notice how the image of garments is fourfold, in just one verse:

1) garments of triumph [bigdei yesha, literally “garments of salvation”],

2) robe of victory [me’il tzedakah, literally “robe of righteousness,”
but more on this in a moment]

3) a bridegroom adorned with a turban [ ke’khatan y’khahen p’er,
literally “like a groom, like a priest, glorious”- the Hebrew is tough
to translate]

4) a bride bedecked with her finery [ kha’kalah ta’adeh khale’ah-
again the Hebrew is hard but you get the idea.]

Hirsch picks up a the connection between “me’il tzedakah” and the most
famous “me’il,” the robe of the High Priest, and translates this
phrase as “in the priestly mantle of devotion to duty He has
enwrapped me.” That, in turn, is supported by the next line, wherein
the bridegroom is glorious, like a priest [y’khahen is like kohen,
priest]. The prophet seems to be suggesting that redemption is going
to convey the glory of the priesthood on all Israel, and the joy will
be like that of bride and groom.

These images of outer finery and glory are not only in contrast to the
torn garments of the mourner that we (metaphorically) wore at Tisha
B’Av, but also suggest an inner transformation. We have gone from
exiles to priests; that is, distant from the Divine Presence,
symbolized by distance from Jerusalem and the Temple, to being in
communion with the Sacred, symbolized by the act of priesthood, which
in Biblical terms is what connects Israel to God. A further analogy is
suggested between the priest- who connects the people to God, bringing
them to spiritual intimacy- and the bride and groom, another image of
bridging distance and creating relationship.

Perhaps a further implication of the “me’il tzedakah” is the
transformation of the priestly “me’il,” or robe, symbolizing the
ritual duties of the priest, to a moral state, of tzedek, righteous or
just behavior. That is, the journey from exile to communion is one in
which our very being comes to display the moral or spiritual qualities
associated with redemption, or the healing of disconnection and
alienation. The new garments are the way we are seen and experienced
in the world, that is, coming to manifest in our actions the
redemptive qualities for which we pray.

So we’ve come full circle: on Tisha B’Av we mourn that which we lost,
and seven weeks later, we celebrate that which we might become. This,
in turn, brings us to Rosh Hashanah, when we contemplate the context
of our lives and renew our deepest commitments. On Tisha B’Av, we
grieve the past; on Rosh Hashanah, we are called to the future, when
we can, like the exile putting on the priestly robes, become something
nobler, more compassionate, more befitting our true selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Nitzavim: Exhortation to Returning

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Sorry about getting this out so late- it’s that time of the year when
there are a few things which call for my attention. . . .

but putting out a weekly Torah commentary is not as hard as going up
to the heavens or crossing the seas, which brings us to a famous
passage in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim:

“. . For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in
that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and
keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of
the Teaching — once you return to the Lord your God with all your
heart and soul. Surely, this Instruction [literally, “this
commandment”] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling
for you, nor is it beyond 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. . . ” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:9-13, JPS translation)

The verse above about “not in the heavens” has been quoted countless
times in countless sermons and drashot in order to encourage and
exhort- which is more or less its meaning in its Biblical context.
What’s interesting is how different commentators see the phrase “this
mitzvah which I command you today. . .” in verse 11. It’s translated
by JPS as “this teaching,” which means that JPS is following one of
two schools of thought about what the phrase means.

Given the entire passage above, some commentators see “this mitzvah
which I command you this day” as basically all the mitzvot; in other
words, the entire Torah is not in heaven, nor too hard or too esoteric
for you to do. Ramban and a few others see “this mitzvah” as being
specifically the mitzvah of t’shuvah, or repentance, based on the word
“return” [= t’shuvah or returning] in the verse before it. The Sefer
HaHinnuch, which lists all the mitzvot in every Torah portion, says
there are no specific commandments in Nitzavim, but as noted, Ramban
disagrees and says we’re being told that t’shuvah, or “returning,” is
the mitzvah that is not up in the heavens or across the oceans- that
is, t’shuvah is not an impossible challenge.

We’ve written about t’shuvah before, but just to refresh your
memories, the word means “returning,” which is a better translation
than the usual “repentance.” We all “get off track,” losing sight of
our ideals and falling short of the mark in various ways- imperfection
is a defining characteristic of being human! So our challenge- which,
according to this reading, is far from out of our reach- is to
remember our ideals, own up to our mistakes, apologize to others if we
have wronged them, and offer forgiveness if it is asked of us.

That’s the mitzvah of t’shuvah in a nutshell; it’s very simple, but
far from easy. This is why Ramban’s interpretation makes sense: not
only because the word “return” appears in verse 10, but also because
at this time of year, when we are asked to focus on t’shuvah in
preparation for the Days of Awe, it’s good to be reminded that we are
not alone in our tasks of fixing things. It may not be comfortable or
easy to ask for forgiveness, but neither is it “across the seas”- it
is something within our grasp, doable, an ordinary act with
extraordinary possibilities.

With best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a Shana Tovah,


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Nitzavim: Nowhere Too Far

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

It’s late in Elul, the season for the Children of Israel to
be doing cheshbon hanesh [“soul-accounting”], which not coincidentally
is the season for rabbis to be stressing out over the Days of Awe,
fast approaching. . . but not this rabbi, who has transcended mere
stress by elevating himself into an entirely different realm, an
almost meditational state of last-minute preparations.

On the other hand, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is not about
last minute details; in fact, it’s about wrapping up a project that
took 40 years to complete, which is of course the sojourn from Egypt
to the Land of Israel. The book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy reaches
rhetorical heights as Moshe exhorts the people to stay faithful to God
and covenant in the new land- but also makes a prophecy that someday
they will stray from covenant and be taken into exile. This image
seems both very literal and also a metaphor for the state of
estrangement between the people and God which will inevitably unfold.
Moshe encourages the people with a great faith that God will bring
them back in love; “returning” to God includes the promise that God
will “bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord
your God has scattered you.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:3)

This promise, of being brought back from among the nations, is an
enduring idea in Jewish thought, and certainly helped keep Jews
faithful to the idea of a restoration in the Land of Israel. Jeffrey
Tigay, in the comprehensive commentary produced by the Jewish
Publication Society (JPS), points out that this verse is alluded to
in the modern prayer for the State of Israel, recited in many
synagogues, which includes the theme of gathering the exiles. Tigay
also suggests that the image of God gathering or returning people is
an ancient one, and shows up in other places:

“God’s ability to retrieve people from anywhere was apparently
proverbial. It is alluded to, with reference to fugitives, in Amos
9:2-3: ‘if they burrow down to Sheol [the realm of the dead], from
there My hand shall take them, and if they ascend to heaven, from
there I will bring them down; if they hide on the top of Carmel, there
I will search them out and seize them.’ ” (JPS Torah Commentary,
Deuteronomy, p. 284).

This idea also calls to mind other famous texts from the Torah,
including the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the prophet Jonah’s
inability to escape his mission, which we read on the afternoon of Yom

Leaving aside theological paradoxes associated with a Being of spirit
omnipresent in material space, what appeals to me about the verses
from Nitzavim is their essential hopefulness. To a people suffering in
exile, Moshe’s message continued to inspire the faith needed to combat
despair. To an individual who feels alienated, lost, or frustrated in
attempts to connect with God, Torah or the Jewish people, the message
is equally clear: there’s a way back to a place of hope, blessing and
feeling at home in the world. Our journeys take us far from our roots,
but Nitzavim reminds us: you are never so far from the root of your
own soul that you can’t return and be whole again. You might be
“scattered among the peoples,” that is, spiritually distant from a
place of peace and strength and purpose and vision, but as our verse
implies, maybe the returning is essential to the learning.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Nitzavim-Vayelech: What You Seek Is Not Across the Sea

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech

The month of Ellul is drawing to a close, and I certainly hope we see
the sun shine again in 5766! We’re a week away from the New Year, so
many communities will be reciting s’lichot, or prayers which ask for
forgiveness, this Saturday night, in order to spiritual prepare for
the upcoming Days of Awe.

Another way to start the inner work of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is
to notice themes in the Torah readings for Ellul which speak to the
possibility of spiritual growth and a renewed sense of moral purpose
for our lives. This week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim- Vayelech,
presents a few famous verses which, to me, are among the most hopeful
and encouraging in the entire Torah. As Moshe prepares his final
blessings for the Israelites, who will continue into the Promised Land
without him, he warns them against discouragement and exhorts them to
believe in themselves:

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too
baffling for you, nor is it beyond 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.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

I believe the central insight of this text is that the work of
spiritual growth- broadly defined in Judaism as learning and observing
Torah – is not always a challenge easily embraced. In fact, almost all
of us have a little voice inside which reacts with negativity to the
challenge of living a generous, humble, compassionate, reverent life-
that’s the voice which says: “you can’t do it, you might as well go
up to heaven or swim across the ocean!” Growth necessitates change,
and change is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to find ways to avoid
the problems that come with deeply thinking about what we want our
lives to be.

This is true not only for individuals, but for communities, as well.
What rabbi has not experienced having an idea met with “that will
never work around here,” or “we’ll never be able to do that!” or some
other expression of spiritual hesitancy? Yet creating communities of
love, inclusion and religious vitality is not as hard as going up to
heaven or swimming across the sea- it’s a matter of believing that
people are capable of becoming what the Torah envisions they can be
and strengthening each other along that journey. No growth is possible
without believing that it is possible- or, to put it another way, what
our verses teach us is that the enemy of spirituality is not theology
(believing the wrong ideas) but negativity (believing that it’s not

As the Days of Awe approach, and we enter into a long, complicated
liturgy with themes of ultimate values and human fallibility, never
forget this: Judaism wouldn’t ask us to confess our mistakes if it
didn’t believe we were capable of fixing them. The Torah wouldn’t
teach us to strive for lovingkindness and moral excellence if it
didn’t believe we could achieve it. We all fall short of our ideals,
but the very idea of the New Year is a fresh start, full of hope and
enthusiasm for the project of a life lived in full expression of the
Divine spark within each human heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- By popular demand, we’ve added a new link to the “go and study”
section of Rabbineal-list. The first link, as usual, will take you to
the Jewish Theological Seminary page which has a link to the actual
texts, in English, of the Torah and haftarah, and the second link
takes you to a page of a summary and diverse commentaries on Note, however, that the
page is for Vayelech- if you want to read more about Nitzavim you have
to go back to the parsha index.

The last two links, however, are guides to Shabbat family parsha
discussions. The first link is the summary of the parsha, with some
questions for discussion, on, and the second is
the Reform movement’s weekly “Shabbat Table Talk,” written for. . . .
well. . . Shabbat table talk (duh!) I hope these will help you bring
Torah thoughts to your dinner table, your Shabbat walk, your
schmoozing around the kiddush [refreshments] at synagogue, or wherever
you find your Shabbat delight.



Summary with family discussion questions:\

Shabbat Table Talk:

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Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashanah: What if Today Was “This Day?”

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim and Rosh Hashana

Shabbat and holiday greetings to all!

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is read in close proximity to Rosh
Hashanah, and is often combined with the next parsha, Vayelech. Nitzavim means “standing,” or “stationed,” and so the portion opens with Moshe collecting the people all together, so that they may hear his pleas for faithfulness and unity. Nitzavim- like Rosh Hashanah- is all about our
choices: blessing or curse, life or death, embracing our spiritual potential or
giving in to our lesser desires.

The central image of Nitzavim is Moshe standing before the assembled people, urging them to be loyal to God and one another. In fact, the first few verses lay out an inclusive vision of Jewish community:

“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your
tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God . . . . . . . ” (Deuteronomy/ Devarim 29:9 -11)

A straightforward interpretation is this: unless the Jewish community is truly inclusive, across lines of gender, age, status, and class, (and sexual orientation, I would add) we are not truly “entering into the covenant.”

That’s always a relevant lesson!

Our teacher Rashi quotes a powerful midrash (creative interpretation) which reframes the image of the collected people from another perspective:


“[The verse says, “this day,” which] teaches us that on the day of his death,
Moshe assembled Israel in the presence of the Holy Blessed One, to bring them into the covenant.”

It’s a startling image: on the day of his death, Moshe was spending his last
hours bringing the people together and sharing his spiritual vision with them. What’s so powerful about this midrash is how it connects with the themes of Rosh Hashanah coming up next week: the themes of mortality, meaning, and ultimate values.

The liturgy on Rosh Hashanah urges us to consider life’s fragility; this
midrash, read the week before, asks us to consider just what we would do if it were truly “this day,” the day of our passing. Would any of us spend our final hours bringing people together in unity and peace as Moshe is imagined to do? Would we want to share our deepest
commitments, to God and humanity, with our family and community? Would we impart our vision of the good life with our loved ones? Would we, like Moshe, not waste a moment on bitterness, but instead give our last energies over in the service of our highest ideals?

Each of us who enter a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has the opportunity to think deeply about how we spend our days; the example of Moshe, from our parsha, can inspire us to greater urgency in the task of authentic, covenantal living. None of us know which day is “this day;” perhaps Judaism’s genius is to ask us to consider that each day may
be our last, and is thus worthy of living to the greatest extent of our intentionality.

With warmest wishes for a sweet and healthy New Year,


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Nitzavim/Vayelech 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 3:23-31:30)


At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moshe gathers the entire Israelite people and gives them a stern warning to uphold God’s covenant. Terrible things await the person who does not observe the commandments, but God will take back in great mercy anyone who sincerely repents. The parsha ends with words of encouragement: Moshe tells the people that upholding the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.


“This commandment that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up to heaven and bring it to us so that we can hear it and do it?’ ” (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)


In the final hours of his life, Moshe pleads with the Jewish people to observe God’s commandments after his death and their ascension to the Land of Israel. He tells them that they are quite capable of observing Torah laws, and that God is very merciful to all who return to holy ways. In this famous passage, Moshe tells them that the Torah is meant for daily living by ordinary people- it is within the grasp and means of every Israelite.


Lo b’shamayim hi- “it is not in the heavens.” On its simplest level, Moshe is telling the people that Torah and Jewish living are not out of the reach of ordinary people- anybody who wants to can do it. On another level, this verse validates everyday Jewish practice and ethics, without requiring mystical practices or esoteric secrets. Rashi comments:

    “It is not in the heavens” – for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend in pursuit to study it.

I think Rashi is saying: one doesn’t need to “ascend to Heaven” to study and practice Torah. One doesn’t need to be especially pious, or “spiritual,” or extraordinary- Torah is for people with “both feet on the ground,” as it were. After all, in the preceding chapters of Deuteronomy, the Torah has discussed laws of eating, clothing, sex, money, war, politics, crime, treatment of animals. . . all part of daily living, not of “going up to Heaven.”

[A related story is told of the Baal Shem Tov who refused to enter a synagogue- saying that it was full of prayers. When his surprised listeners questioned this, he replied that prayers should rise to heaven, but because here they remain cluttering the prayer hall, there was no room for him to enter. Ed.] The Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (a.k.a. the Kotzker Rebbe) makes the point even more pungently:

    “It is not in the heavens”- The Torah is not found among the “heavenly” Jews, those who seek to climb into the highest of the Heavens.

The Kotzker Rebbe’s statement is probably a barb aimed at those Jews who spent their time seeking mystical experiences rather than helping others in the community, but we can also understand it another way. The true test of Torah is not in our most “spiritual” and detached moments, as vital as those are. The truest manifestations of Torah are in earthly axctions- feeding people, buying things, selling things, taking care of ourselves and others, refraining from gossip, acting compassionately with those right in front of us.

Please note, I don’t think either Rashi or the Kotzker was against spirituality, as such; certainly deep prayer and development of the inner self is important in any form of sincere Judaism. Rather, I think they are saying that spirituality cannot be separated from our goodness and integrity, nor does it depend on esoteric knowledge. “It is not in the heavens”- nor confined to the synagogues, study halls, Kolels, universities, or Judaic web sites. It begins in our hearts and mouths, with an attitude toward daily actions, and a resolve to strive for more holy living in all our affairs.

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Nitzavim/Vayelech 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 3:23-31:30)


At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moshe gathers the entire Israelite people and gives them a stern warning to uphold God’s covenant. Terrible things await the person who does not observe the commandments, but God will take back in great mercy anyone who sincerely repents. The parasha ends with words of encouragement: Moshe tells the people that following the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.

Parashat Vayelech tells us of Moshe’s final hours: he passes the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua [Joshua], and gives the book of the Torah to the Levites to safeguard. He then instructs the people to gather on a seven-year cycle to hear the Law read aloud. The Presence of God appears to Moshe, predicting Israel’s faithlessness but promising to bring them to the Land.


Now you know that we dwelled in the land of Egypt and that we passed through other nations as we went on. You have seen detestable things and the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold which they had. Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is turning today away from Adonai our God, in order to serve the deities of those nations- maybe there is among you a poisonous root or wormwood. When such a one hears all these words, he may bless himself in his heart, saying: “I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart-” thus sweeping away the moist with the dry. God will not come to pardon such a one. . .

(Deuteronomy 29:15-19, translation mine, based on notes in the JPS commentary.)


Even after the Israelites have seen all the different kinds of idolatry practiced by Egypt and all the other nations, and even after God has warned them time and time again not to worship other deities, it’s still possible that there might be someone who doesn’t take these warnings seriously. Moshe thus warns the people yet again that they must be very careful not to allow in their midst any worship except that of the God of Israel.


Our passage this week contains some unusual and difficult language, giving our usual cast of commentators some work to do, especially in understanding the blessing that the disobedient one gives himself. I have translated this passage:

    “I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart”- thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.

but really, each clause is debatable. A few different translations show the possibilities:

    When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. (New American Standard Bible) 

    It shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, “I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.” (Revised Standard Version)

    And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit- thereby adding the watered upon the thirsty. (Artscroll)

The biggest problem is the last clause of the verse: “thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.” The simplest explanation of this image is that it is “all-inclusive,” like saying “day and night,” or “soup to nuts.” The disobedient one will end up being “swept away” entirely; alternatively, he will bring disaster among the entire nation. (Jewish Publication Society Commentary) Rashi, on the other hand, sees the word sfot, which I am translating as “swept away,” as being related to the word for “added,” which has a similar root. Thus Rashi sees “adding the moist to the dry” as God adding punishments upon punishments for his sins.

Ramban has yet a third interpretation: this person is “giving himself a blessing” when all the other Israelites are hearing the curses related in chapter 28. He thinks that by exempting himself, the consequences won’t apply. Furthermore, according to Ramban, to “add moist to the dry” is a description of the psychological consequences of “following” one’s problematic desires: first somebody does something they ought not do, and then they keep on doing different forbidden things, looking for a greater thrill every time, constantly needing to “up the ante” in order to find temporary satisfaction of their desires.

All of these interpretations offer a more detailed explanation of the basic problem: this person (or group) that Moshe warns about is in utter denial of the consequences of their actions. As Ramban points out, they are deluding themselves if they think that they can exempt themselves from the same conditions that apply to everybody around them. Whether they have mistaken ideas, or they are arrogant, or painfully naive, a person in denial can create big problems for themselves and those around them.

The specific issue that Moshe addresses- worshipping the deities of the ancient nations- may not be much of a problem anymore, but the human capacity for self-deception remains with us always. People are often prone to think that “the rules” apply to everybody but themselves; whether in the realm of health, ethics, or simply the inevitable consequences of our actions, the refusal to confront reality is a pervasive and destructive force in human existence. When you eat too much junk food, it’s not healthy for your body; when you tell little distortions of the truth, it’s not healthy for your relationships; when you consistently put off prayer and good deeds, it’s not good for your soul. These are teachings we all know, but all too often, try to forget.

Thus it’s especially appropriate to read these words the week before Rosh Hashana. On the Days of Awe, we are challenged to fearlessly review our deeds: did we do what we ought? did we do things we shouldn’t have? are our relationships in order- with ourselves, with others, with God? Are we like the “self-blesser” that Ramban imagines, telling ourselves that it’s going to be all right, because the basic laws of nature and morality don’t really apply to me? (I, for one, am still firmly convinced that I can eat chocolate and cookies and not gain weight.)

The good news in all of this is that change is always possible. The following chapter is an extended meditation on the possibility of choice and change, along with the assurance that this is within the reach of every person:

    For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Deuteronomy 30: 11)

Preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe can be daunting- sometimes it’s easier to look away at parts of ourselves that need work. Yet Judaism insists that we have the capability to change, grow, and better ourselves- it’s hard work, but it’s that simple.


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