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Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh
September 20, 2014 – 25 Elul 5774
Annual (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Triennial (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:14): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Haftarah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Etz Hayim p. 1181; Hertz p. 883

Prepared by Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Every Israelite gathers to hear Moses’s closing words. They are told that they have an equal share in God’s covenant with their ancestors before them. They also are warned once again about the punishments they will endure if they worship idols. Still, God will reward those who repent. God reminds the Israelites that the laws are not remote theoretical concepts, but are attainable for all.

Moses officially transfers his position of leadership to Joshua. Moses writes down the Teaching and tells the people to read it publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. God assures Moses that the Israelites inevitably will break the covenant and that God will hide God’s presence from them. Moses is asked to write a poem to teach the Israelites of this likelihood. Moses relays God’s prediction to the people, and prepares to recite the poem along with Joshua.


Theme #1: Crowd-surfing

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God -- your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer -- to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day ... (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)

The final moments of Moses’s life are witnessed by all of Israel, to hear him for one last time.

The tzaddikim, the holy ones, are always moving along. All their days they are moving with their spiritual powers from level to level. For them, standing still is incomprehensible except at the hour of communion with God, devekut, joining themselves with their Creator. Moses, our teacher, when he gazed out over Israel and saw that they were “standing” realized that this standing still and not moving [was an indication of their spiritual condition]. He declared that it is no wonder that “you are standing today,” for now you are on the highest possible level, “before Adonai, your God” -- bound in the highest form of ecstasy with the Holy One, face to face, without any dividing screen. And from such a level it would be incomprehensible to move, rather only to simply stand still and be there. -- Baruch ben Jehiel of Medzibezh

Whenever the need arises to take action on behalf of Judaism, to wage the good fight for the glory of God, the people all protest: “Why choose me, of all people? Leave it to the teachers, the rabbis, the leaders of the community. What can an ordinary citizen like myself do?” But they are in grave error. When the need arises to act before the Lord your God, you must be standing, all of you, ready for action, from your “heads and tribes” down to “the hewer of your wood and the drawer of your water.” The entire people must unite and not be content to leave the responsibility to their leaders. -- Butzina DiNehora

[In Leviticus 25,] slaves may be acquired from the surrounding nations and also from the resident aliens residing with you. Deuteronomy makes a single differentiation between the resident aliens and the Israelites as members of the sacral community by indicating that meat that dies of itself may not be eaten by Israelites but may be given to aliens. At the same time, Deuteronomy is explicit about including the resident aliens in the gathering of the people to hear the terms of the covenant and to be instructed about the rules of the neighborhood in which they are going to live and accept them by entering into covenant. -- Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord

Questions for Discussion:

Baruch ben Jehiel of Medzibezh claims that it takes an extraordinary moment for the most righteous people to stop in their tracks; only an encounter with the Divine can accomplish it. What are the moments that cause us to stop in our tracks? How difficult is it to feel a level of awe which would force us to stop? Are awesome moments happening all the time but we are too pre-occupied to notice?

Unlike many other sources, Butzina DiNehora states that there are times when we must stand together and not take for granted that our leaders will work in our best interests. Are there times when we put too much faith in our leaders? Has our society become so hyper-critical leaders need space to simply do their jobs? Do today’s leaders deserve benefit of the doubt?

Miller tells us that including resident aliens in Moses’s final address is an essential statement recognizing these peoples’ place in Israelite society. Do we do enough to include diverse subsets of people into our community? What are the risks of claiming that they should not be included? Is there ever a time when too much inclusion can work against a community?


Theme #2: Peek-A-Boo

Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deuteronomy 29:28)

This statement highlights the difference between the laws between humanity and God and those between humans and other humans.

To appreciate the biblical relationship between God and humans in general, and the disappearance of God in particular, one must have a sense of the extreme mystery that surrounds the deity like the divine cloud. God is an enigma to humans when in visible contact with them and is the memory of an enigma after becoming hidden. The most that humans are allowed to know is the outward personality of Yahweh: a merciful and gracious God, long-suffering, abundant in kindness … But what Yahweh is is the Bible’s unspoken, pervasive mystery. … The focus is not on the discovery of the essence of God but on what humans have to do, here in this world. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God

Being overflows with significance that we can grasp at but cannot master or comprehend. Precisely because intentions so often go awry, because unintended consequences seem to flow from every action great and small, because the effects of our actions are felt to the third and fourth generation, the achievements of a lifetime not knowable until played out in the lives of children and grandchildren, students and the students of students -- precisely because of all that, the good and evil chosen every moment must be known to have their own intrinsic reward, as well as to carry with them effects in the future which cannot possibly be calculated. There is a more ultimate consolation as well. Deuteronomy does want to reassure us, as God reassures Moses, that history will eventually conform to the divine plan for it. Someday goodness will assuredly result in further goodness. In a word -- unknown to the Torah, but implicit in it -- the messiah will come. But the meantime is the reality relevant to Deuteronomy, as to us -- and in the meantime it is the shape of the present and not the future which is of concern. The present must be perceived correctly, its possibilities seized. Real good and evil, actual life and death, are in our hands. There is work to be done. -- Arnold M. Eisen, Taking Hold of Torah

Redemption will be ushered in by two distinct eras. The first is the “secret one,” the time ordained for the actual commanding of our deliverance, which is known only to God. But there is also another era which will be “revealed” and known before us; an era which will begin when the Jewish people will repent for their sins. The Sages say: “Even today, if only you will listen to My voice.” The Messiah might come this very day, if only we would heed the voice of the Lord. When this day will come depends entirely on us and on our deeds, on whether we are willing to repent for our sins and mend our ways. Thus Scripture [essentially] states: The time appointed for the actual coming of deliverance is hidden from our view and known only to God, but the “revealed” era belongs to us and to our children forever, so that we may do all the words of this Law. If we will faithfully observe the commandments of the Torah, we can hasten the redemption so that it may even come this very day. -- Ketav Sofer

Questions for Discussion:

Friedman approaches this verse by arguing that the Bible focuses not on discovering God’s purpose on earth, but rather on ours. It is through our journey toward following God that we learn the most about ourselves. Does this compare to the saying that the essence is the journey, not the destination? Are there times when the destination is more important than the journey?

In many history textbooks, modern days resemble a compilation of facts about people and events, largely because it’s too soon to appreciate long-term impacts. Eisen understands this verse of the Torah in a similar way; the Israelites listening to Moses are not likely to discover the meaning behind these “concealed acts,” but they may be understood many years later. What events in the recent past are now considered more important today than they used to be? Can we predict which of today’s “underrated” events will become significant centuries from now?

Ketav Sofer forwards one of many theories of what will need to happen to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. Is it worthwhile to theorize how and when it might take place? Is the Ketav Sofer’s idea compelling, or are there others that seem to make more sense?

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