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Parashat Nitzavim
September 12, 2015 – 28 Elul 5775

Annual (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Triennial (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Haftarah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam 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 ideas that are attainable for all.

Theme #1: Piece of My Heart

Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

The same God that hardens enemies' hearts will open Israelite hearts in order to bless the people.

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, speak to Moses? That if they would repent while in any of the kingdoms where they might be [exiled], the Holy One, blessed be He, would gather them together; as it says … “and the Lord your God will circumcise your heart.” -- Numbers Rabbah

Some people find this reference [in the second paragraph of the Grace After Meals] to circumcision (the covenant which God has “sealed in our flesh”) exclusionary. Therefore, some substitute “in our hearts” for “in our flesh.” -- from the Mizmor Shir Birkon

In prayer, which the rabbis call “the service of the heart,” tradition places as much emphasis on one’s intention, “kavvanat ha-lev,” the directing of the heart, as it does on the recitation of the words. This idea is one of the central beliefs of Hasidism. -- Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

Questions for Discussion:

Numbers Rabbah holds that even if we are outside of Israel, if we take our Jewish heritage seriously, we will gravitate toward each other even in a foreign land, thereby placing us in a position of strength. What are some examples of Diaspora Jewish communities accomplishing great things when many people work together? Now that Jews are integrated in the general societies of many nations, how must communal organizations shift to focus on today's challenges?

The Mizmor Shir Birkon explains that the reference to circumcision in the Grace After Meals is considered by some as inclusive to males but not females, as only Jewish males are circumcised, so there is a custom to borrow a phrase from today's Torah portion. To what extent do we have a responsibility to create gender-inclusive language in Jewish prayers? Should we be cautious about changing prayers that have existed in the same form for hundreds of years? Or do modern sensibilities outweigh our affection for tradition in these cases?

Frankel and Teutsch tell us that the ancient expression for mental concentration involved references to the heart, not the mind. Today, we typically refer to the brain as the seat of rational thought and the heart as the seat of emotions. Does the ancient emphasis on the heart make more sense? Is there some benefit to considering the heart in a metaphorical sense, not just as an organ that pumps blood to the rest of our bodies?

Theme #2: Locally Produced

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?" (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)

This famous statement has empowered many Jewish scholars to add their insights to our understanding of Torah.

When we are told that the Torah is not in the heavens, we are to understand that it is not found among the astrologers. -- Deuteronomy Rabbah

“It is not in heaven”. Moses said to them, “Do not say, ‘Another Moses will arise and bring us another Torah from heaven,’ for I say to you, ‘It is not in heaven’ -- no part of it has remained in heaven.” -- Deuteronomy Rabbah

Rabbi Yohanan said: The words “It is not in heaven”. Samuel said, “Torah is not be found among those who are arrogant." “Neither is it beyond the sea” -- it will not be found among merchant princes or petty traders. -- Eruvin 55a

Questions for Discussion:

Deuteronomy Rabbah seems to touch upon the strands of our tradition that relies on mystical interpretations. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, the text speaks out against mysticism in numerous ways. Does mysticism have a place among the 70 faces of the Torah? Are the Kabbalah and the Zohar good sources for understanding Torah in modern times, or should they be relegated to the time and society in which they originated?

Deuteronomy Rabbah also teaches that the Torah was given in whole to Moses and that there is no point in waiting for additional insights. This statement seems to fly in the face of what many in the Conservative movement call "continuous revelation," the concept that, in every generation, we learn more about what God wants from us and find new ways to understand Torah. Can these two views be harmonized? How? Is it important to think of the Torah as a living document, one that stands for different ideas as society progresses?

Eruvin takes a different view of what "heaven" and "sea" mean in this context, saying that heaven stands for those who egotistically reach for the heavens (but never get there), and beyond the sea refers to untrustworthy characters from foreign places. But is it possible to learn important lessons from less-than-savory people? Can a difficult person still be an effective teacher? Or, can we learn from them by specifically not following their examples?

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