Archive for 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: Gather the People

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech

Hello again!

I really thought I’d be able to write a commentary last week but traveling kept me from the books- and of course, when you get back from a week away you spend a week catching up, so here we are, a bit off course from our theme of prayer but we’ll be back to that next week.

This week we read a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, in which Moshe gives the people the final mitzvot of the Torah, including the interesting mitzvah of hekel, or gathering the entire people every seven years to hear words of Torah:

“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 31:10-12)

Most commentators understand “this teaching” to refer to D’varim [Deuteronomy] itself. The public reading was done by the king, in Jerusalem, in the beginning year of the seven-year Shmittah [Sabbatical year] cycle. The scholar known as the Kli Yakar asks why the Torah commands all the people to be gathered during Sukkot, and why it had to be in the year right after the Shmittah, in which many kinds of labor and finances ceased (at least in theory.)

The Kli Yakar sees the timing of the gathering as part of the message: we’ve just concluded Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for individuals, yet there are some sins which are not individual but communal, on the level of the society or nation. Thus, while Yom Kippur is the day when we do individual “returning” or repentance, there has to be a time when we resolve together to correct problems in society, such exploitation of the poor or weak. (His example, not mine.) This message of social t’shuvah or repentance is connected with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, which symbolize the connection and integration of different parts of society into a greater and more just whole.

Not only that, but the reason that the national gathering happened right after the Shmittah year, when debts were forgiven and the land rested, was to remind the nation not to fall back into its habits of abusing or neglecting the poor. As I understand the teaching, after a radical interruption of “business as usual,” there was an opportunity to remind the people as to the moral meaning of the preceding year, in the hopes that the ethic of the Shmittah year would continue throughout the next cycle.

Some sins are personal, but some are structural, and we have to imagine how our society might look differently after a communal return to core values.

“Gather the people. . . . ”

Personal spiritual introspection is necessary. . . .but there are some things we have to fix together.

Shabbat Shalom,


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VaYelech: Writing Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Today is a momentous day in the history of Rabbineal-list, for two
reasons. First, all year we’ve been reflecting on the mitzvot, the
commandments, of the Torah, as they present themselves in each weekly
parsha, and this week we’ve reached the very last mitzvah of the
Torah. Second, having spent a year studying the mitzvot, I think it’s
time to change themes in the coming year, and so we’re pleased to
announce that starting with the Torah portion Bereshit, after the fall
holidays, our weekly commentary will focus on the haftarah [text from
later Biblical books] associated with each week or holiday. We’ve
never done a haftarah commentary at Rabbineal-list HQ before- not
online and not “live”- so it’s going to be a great project for the
year to come.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled Torah portion, VaYelech, which
contains the final commandment of the Torah, which is for every person
to write a scroll of the Torah (but don’t break out the quills just
yet.) The rabbis derive this mitzvah from a passage in which Moshe is
told to write down “this song” [or poem], which in context probably
means the final passages of the Torah but which is taken to mean the
entire Torah itself:

“Therefore, you write down this poem and teach it to the people of
Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My
witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Again, in context, the “you” of the verse above seems to be Moshe, but
the rabbis expand the “you” to include everybody. [Women were not
understood by the ancient rabbis to be so obligated, but I would
certainly view this as an equal-opportunity mitzvah.] So by the time
we get to the middle ages, the mitzvah is for each man so qualified to
either write a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] or have one written for his
use, so that the number of Torah scrolls is increased and people will
be more motivated to study from their own personal copy.

Some commentators say this includes writing (in the days before
printing) other sacred texts, like books of halacha or midrash
[rabbinic practices and interpretations]. One modern scholar (link
below) has suggested that the way to fulfill this mitzvah today is for
everyone to learn to read and properly chant the Torah text- the idea
is that the mitzvah of writing was to fix the text in a person’s mind,
and in our day, printed editions are plentiful but actually reviewing
them and learning them and deeply internalizing the text would be
better achieved through the work of learning and performing the

I think that’s a great interpretation, and I want to add another
(especially because Torah reading is hardly my strongest skill set).
Sefer HaHinnuch says that one needs to write (or commission) a sefer
Torah even if one already has one as an inheritance; that is, the
mitzvah is fulfilled through the process of writing or acquiring, not
about the end-result of ownership. To me, this teaches that we must
actively acquire our own Torah- that is, deep internalization of
Jewish narratives, values and wisdom- rather than simply “inheriting,”
or passively accepting, the Torah of a previous generation. That’s no
slight to anybody, but rather a basic truth that if you don’t acquire
it yourself, through study, reflection and questioning, the Torah
won’t be. . . . well. . . . . yours.

We can’t all write a scroll, and commissioning one is a big (but
entirely doable) project, but we can all take ownership, as it were,
of our own Judaism. Some Jewish books are timeless, and some suit well
a particular generation- each of us has to find the sources of
teaching and spiritual orientation which we can truly grow into. Each
of us will create a different library, have a different Sukkah or
tallit, make their Shabbat unique with family traditions as well as
universal liturgies. Writing or acquiring a Torah is a tremendous
mitzvah; internalizing Torah and making it alive through our actions
is an even bigger one.

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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Vayelech: What is Not Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Greetings from the heart of Red Sox Nation, where hope never dies!

Besides the playoffs, we’re also in the season of “Shabbat Shuvah,” which is the name given to the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This week, between the holy days, is a special time of “returning (“t’shuvah”) to our best selves and our most precious relationships. Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the opening words of the Haftarah [prophetic reading], which urges the people of Israel to “return” (“shuvah Yisrael”)
to God.

The regular Torah portion for this week is Vayelech, which is set on the last
day of Moshe’s life. Moshe gives the leadership over to Joshua, and gives the Levites a Torah scroll for instruction. Moshe tells the people to gather every seven years to hear the Torah read publically, and concludes by predicting that in the future, they will stray from Torah, yet it will not be totally forgotten from “the mouths of their offspring.”

Rashi raises an interesting question about Moshe’s prediction that the
Israelites will stray from Moshe’s teaching after his death. (Cf. verse 31:29.) Rashi points out that later on, in the book of Judges, there’s a verse which says that the Israelites were actually faithful all the days of Joshua- Moshe’s successor. So if the Israelites were faithful during the days of
Joshua, why does Moshe say they’ll become “corrupt” after he- Moshe- dies?

Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“But actually, throughout all the days of Joshua, they [the Israelites] did not
become corrupt, for the verse states, “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua” (Jud. 2:7). [We learn] from here that a person’s disciple is as dear to him as his own self, for as long as Joshua was alive [even after Moshe’s passing], for Moshe it was as though he himself was alive.”

Rashi’s idea is that Moshe took comfort in knowing that his values, his
teaching, and his example would continue in the life of his faithful disciple- Joshua- even after his death. Seen this way, by being faithful during the time of Joshua, the Israelites were indeed, still being faithful to Moshe. This solves Rashi’s technical problem with the two contradictory
verses, but perhaps more importantly, Rashi’s midrash opens up our thinking about life and death, about legacy and loss, during the season of the Days of Awe.

One week from today, many of us will be in synagogue, reciting Yizkor [the
prayer of remembrance] for those who have passed on. Does Judaism insist on ritualized remembering purely for reasons of nostalgia? Rashi’s teaching seems to suggest another perspective on the remembrance of those we love: that in a very real sense, the work of the dead is carried on in the lives of those they taught while alive. As their work is carried on, their spirit, the essential meaning of their lives, is not lost- one can be faithful not only
in remembrance, but in exemplifying in action the values of those who have died.

By “work,” of course, I do not mean the family business (though that too is a
precious legacy for many people), but I mean the work of one’s passions, one’s priorities, a particular person’s particular sense of how to humanize this often cruel world. Each of us has to, at some point, let go of a loved one or respected mentor who taught us how to live. This is the cause of great grief, but Rashi seems to suggest that both the living and the dying can take comfort in seeing how a person’s unique teaching and example
enables what is most noble in a life to continue after the body has failed.
Yizkor- remembrance- is thus not a call to nostalgia, but to action; a remembrance not of death, but a remembering of how to live.

Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast to all,


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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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