Archive for Nitzavim/Vayelech

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Keep Moving

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Nitzavim- Vayelech

[Moshe]  said to them, “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, because the Lord said to me:You shall not cross this Jordan.” Deuteronomy/ D’varim31:2)

Good morning! We’re going to make one more valiant effort to restart our weekly Torah commentary despite the looming plethora of holidays and other logistical challenges. (Short version: you can never, ever get too many references on home contractors.)
The scene set by this week’s Torah reading is quite poignant: Moshe announces that he is 120 years old, apparently too old to lead the people any longer, and gives the people powerful exhortation to choose what is right and good as they continue on into the Land without him. Our friend Rashi sees the verse above as stressing the last part- that God has forbidden Moshe to enter the Land. Thus for Rashi, Moshe’s statement that he can “no longer go or come” simply means that his journey is over by Heavenly decree. 
So far, so good. On the other hand, maybe Moshe is not describing his external constraints but his internal state of being. The Hasidic sage Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin reminds us* that growth and change are constant throughout a person’s life- we never stop learning from our mistakes, repenting of the ways we have fallen short, and seeking to rise to a higher level in the coming year. We may, as we grow, reflect on mistakes made years earlier, when we were not yet wise enough to really do t’shuvah for these shortcomings, or even recognize them as such.
Thus, when Moshe says “I can no longer go or come,” in this reading he’s saying: I have reached a place where I’m no longer moving and growing and changing spiritually, I have attained the highest level I can, and thus my life has reached its fulfillment and conclusion. For the rest of us, please note: that took Moshe 120 years. I have no such excuse! 
The point is not that when we get stuck, we should give up; the point is that Moshe kept struggling to reach higher and higher levels until the very end of his life and even then sought to use every bit of his energy to teach and encourage and transform his people. Every one of us is still “going out and coming in,” that is, going off the path of our ideals and principles and coming back into relationship with God, ourselves and others. That is the primary work of the Days of Awe just ahead. The good news is this: the gates of return are always open. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
* This passage is quoted by Norman Lamm in the magisterial work “The Religious Thought of Hasidism,” 363-4. Above is a creative paraphrase. 

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Nitzavim- Vayelech: Write for Yourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech 

“And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. . . ” 

Good afternoon! 

In both baseball and Torah portions, we’re in the final weeks of the season, heading into the home stretch. This week, in the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech, we encounter the very last mitzvah of the Torah, derived from the verse above, that each person should write for themselves, or have written for them, a Torah scroll. We won’t go into the details of this mitzvah now, but you can click here and here for further study. For today, let’s just note that the context of the verse itself seems to be God telling Moshe that he should write down the words that God is teaching him, as it were, so that Moshe can in turn give it to the people and they can be held accountable. 

Going farther than the specific context of Deuteronomy, the ancient rabbis noted the “write for yourselves” is in the plural, and interpreted this to mean that each of us is to write the Torah for ourselves. One medieval commentary, the Sefer HaChinnuch, thinks that the point of this mitzvah is the ease of Torah study if we each has our own scroll (presumably, this comes from the days before printed books.) On the other hand, a Talmudic sage, Rabbah, says that even if your parents left you a Torah scroll, you still have to write one for yourself- that is, it’s not just about having one, it’s about making it yourself. 

This latter interpretation strikes me as teaching something important: it’s not enough to simply inherit your parent’s Torah- and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. It’s not enough to simply practice an inherited Judaism; “writing for ourselves” suggests making Judaism our own, making it live through the specific prism of our own lives, not just preserving an inheritance but also taking ownership of our religious experience. To be clear: this doesn’t mean we automatically reject the previous generations’ Judaism, it means that we build on it, embracing the confidence that each generation is responsible for doing Torah in this world according to its abilities and needs. 

That, to me, is a timeless message: we may inherit ancient texts, but we bring them to life in this day, not for the sake of the scroll of the Torah but for the creative soul of the Torah. 

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/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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