By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: NITZAVIM: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
VAYELECH: Deuteronomy 31:1-30.
DECLARING THE END FROM THE BEGINNING
“Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand and all My pleasure I shall do’ ” (Isaiah 46:10).
Parshas NITZAVIM is always read on the last Shabbos before Rosh HaShanah (New Year) and is often (though not always) coupled with its sister parshah of VAYELECH, with which it shares the same theme. According to tradition, these and all the remaining parshahs of the Torah were delivered by Moses to the assembled Children of Israel on the very last day of his life (Rashi on Deut. 29:9). As the climax and summing up of the whole Torah, the stark reproof and sublime poetry of these parshahs make them appropriate reading prior to and during the coming Days of Awe. In this period, we must make a very honest reckoning about time past and take the necessary lessons to heart in order to fortify ourselves for the New Year. We stand poised to face its challenges, just as Israel stood in the Plains of Moab, poised to enter the Land.
ATEM NITZAVIM — “You are standing”. The Hebrew word NITZAVIM, translated as “standing”, has the connotation of firmly founded stability. This is the stability and fortitude that come from the knowledge of the Torah that we internalize in our hearts. Here, as we stand at the end of the Torah, we ought to be much wiser than we were at the beginning. Shortly, we will be “entering the Land”, starting all over again from the beginning, BEREISHIS. Just before we “enter the Land”, the New Year, Moses tells us to stand and reflect on the lessons we have learned so far, in order to be able to start over again on a better footing.
Moses explicitly addressed this section of the Torah to all Israel in all the generations: “those who are here with us standing this day before G-d, and those that are not here with us today” — the unborn souls of all the later generations. The Torah’s lessons were not only addressed to the time of Moses, the ancient world, the Middle Ages or only the generations preceding the “Enlightenment” and the birth of modern science and technology. Our parshah is explicitly addressed to “the last generation, your children who will arise after you” (Deut. 29:21). This is the generation that faces the consequences of the mass abandonment of the Covenant, the anger and concealment of G-d, the many evils and troubles. This is the generation that will say, “Is it not because my G-d is not within me that these evils have found me?” (Deut. 31:17). Those standing at the end of time are in a position to look over the entire span of history all the way back to the beginning. Then they can testify that everything foretold thousands of years ago in these parshahs, including the loss of the Land, the tribulations of exile, the “hiding” of G-d from the world, the return to the Land and today’s Teshuvah movement, have all come to pass.
These lessons are addressed not only to Israel, on whose very flesh they have been taught again and again. The stark lesson of G-d’s righteousness is addressed to “the stranger who will come from a distant land” (ibid.) and to the entire world. “.And they will see the wounds of that Land and the illnesses with which G-d has afflicted it. Sulfur and salt, conflagration. And all the nations will say, Why has G-d done this to this Land, what is this great burning anger? And they will say, Because they abandoned the Covenant.”
As we daily witness the fires that have been ravaging Israel and its people in front of our very eyes, Moses tells us bluntly to be in no doubt whatever about one thing: “Lest there be among you a man or woman or family or tribe whose heart is turning away today from HaShem our G-d to go to serve the gods of the nations. And when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart saying I will have SHALOM even though I go in the stubbornness of my heart. G-d will not desire to forgive him” (Deut. 29:17-19). We are to have no doubt whatever that it is impossible for Israel to enjoy SHALOM in the Land of Israel except through embracing G-d’s Covenant and His Torah.
We may ask what we can do if we ourselves want to keep the Torah but others do not. Why should the righteous and innocent suffer collective punishment because of the sins of those who have abandoned the Covenant? Moses addresses this question in the deep, deep teaching that says: “The things that are concealed belong to HaShem our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever to carry out all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:28). Only G-d knows what is in the heart of each person, and G-d’s dealings with the entire world contain mysteries that we cannot understand because we do not possess His perfect knowledge of all things, past, present and future. These mysteries do not belong to us — we cannot understand the way G-d deals with each one of His creatures in accordance with His perfect knowledge. Our province is what has been revealed to us in the Torah. The Torah teaches us what G-d asks US to get up and do in this world, without looking at what others may or may not be doing.
In the words of Rashi (ad loc.): “If you say, What is in our hands to do? You punish the many because of the wicked thoughts of the individual. Surely no man knows what is in the hidden depths of his friend? G-d answers: I do not punish you over what is concealed, which ‘belong to HaShem our G-d’, and He will exact payment from that individual. It is what is revealed that belongs to us and our children — to eradicate the evil from within us, and if justice is not carried out on them (for known wrong-doing) the many will suffer.”
Immediately following this comes what is known as PARSHAS HA-TESHUVAH, the “Chapter on Repentance” (Deut. 30:1-10), which some people have the custom of reciting daily in order to keep it constantly in mind. Lest we be disheartened by the harsh words and dire threats contained in the preceding and following sections, Moses here emphasizes G-d’s unstinting compassion and kindness as he calls on us to return to Him with all our hearts. Moses promises us that G-d will definitely turn around the captivity and exile and gather in the exiles from all the nations, even those outcast to the furthest reaches of the heavens. Moses promises that “G-d will bring you to the land of your fathers and you will inherit it, and He will benefit you and multiply you even more than your fathers! And G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed to love HaShem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul in order that you should have life!” (Deut. 30:5-6). The initial letters of the four Hebrew words for “your heart and the heart of your seed” (ES LEVOVCHO V-ES LEVAV) spell out the name of the present month, ELUL (Baal HaTurim). For this self-circumcision of our hearts is the essence of the work we must do this month.
The Torah is not in the heavens or over the seas. It is right here: “For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to DO IT” (ibid. v. 14). Moses wants us never to forget our existential situation in this world as agents possessing free will. In order to win the battle of free will, our work here in this world is first and foremost with our mouths and in our hearts. Again and again Moses reminds us that we are faced with a blessing and a curse — the blessing if we follow the ways of the Torah and the curse if we do not. Our task is to use our mouths in prayer and self-empowerment in order to fortify our hearts in the path of Torah and service of G-d. “Life and death I have put before you, the blessing and the curse. And you shall choose life in order that you should LIVE, you and your seed” (ibid. v. 19).
VEYELECH – THE TRANSMISSON OF THE TORAH
With the Torah almost complete except for the concluding Song (HA’AZINU) and Moses’ Blessings (VE-ZOS HABRACHAH), it was necessary to ensure the transmission of authority from Moses to his divinely-appointed successor, Joshua and the transmission of the Torah to the nation as a whole and to all the later generations.
Parshas VEYELECH describes how the leadership of Israel was transferred to Joshua in the eyes of all Israel in order to give him perfect legitimacy after Moses would be gone. Having instructed Joshua to be strong and courageous in leading the people into the Land, Moses wrote the Torah and gave it to the Cohen-Priests and the Elders of Israel. (According to tradition, on the last day of his life, Moses wrote the Torah scroll that was to be kept in the Sanctuary as well as a Torah scroll for each of the Twelve Tribes, a total of thirteen scrolls.)
Moses then gave the commandment known as HAKHEL after the first Hebrew word of Deut. 31:12. “ASSEMBLE the people, the men, the women and the children and the proselyte that is in your gates, in order that they should hear and in order that they should learn and revere HaShem your G-d and take care to perform all the words of this Torah.” This mass assembly is to take place in the Temple once every seven years during the festival of Succos of the year immediately following the Shemittah (Sabbatical) year. Everyone is to assemble in the “Women’s Courtyard”, where the king is to read publicly extensive sections of the book of Deuteronomy setting forth G-d’s Covenant with the Israel and the blessings and curses (Sotah 41a). The HAKHEL Assembly was undoubtedly a formidably powerful experience for all who took part, and so it will be when it is restored. The effects of the public reading of Deuteronomy are described in the Book of Kings (Kings II, chs. 22-23), which tells how in a time of deep crisis in Eretz Israel, King Josiah solemnly renewed the Covenant and brought the people to rededicate themselves to the Torah and its commandments.
AND NOW, WRITE FOR YOURSELVES THIS SONG
“And now, write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Children of Israel, put it in their mouths.” (Deut. 31:19).
This verse is the source of the very last mitzvah contained in the Torah: that each Israelite should write his own Torah scroll. One who is unable to write a scroll himself can appoint a scribe as his agent. When a person contributes money for the writing of a Torah scroll, it is attributed to him as if he fulfilled this mitzvah. The Codes state that in our generations, the mitzvah is also fulfilled through the acquisition of printed Torah literature for use in Torah study.
In the words of Rabbi Nachman: “The Talmud teaches us that ‘The day will come when the Torah will be forgotten’ (Shabbos 138a). Therefore many books are printed and bought, with people building up their own libraries. Since even the simplest tailor has books, the Torah is not forgotten. As each book is published, people rush to buy it, building up respectable collections. In this manner, the Torah does not fall into oblivion.
What people do not realize is that these books are of no help unless people look into them and study their teachings. How can books prevent the Torah from being forgotten if nobody studies them?” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #18).
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum