Torah Readings for Saturday, September 20, 2014
Nitzavim and Vayeilech - A Double Portion: Because 5774 is not a leap year, we have to double up on some Torah portions. This Shabbat is one of those times. We read the portions of Nitzavim and Vayeilech, each of which is discussed below. Taken individually these are two of the shortest weekly readings of the year so combining them does not place an undue burden on the congregation. As you will see in the reading below, Vayeilech contains the 612th and 613th commandments meaning that the list of laws ends this week. That is appropriate for the Shabbat just prior to the Days of Awe. The next two Torah portions are more of a spiritual, poetic and mystical nature which is in keeping with the motif of the High Holidays.
Nitzavim (Are Standing)29:9 - 30:20 Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Nitzavim is the eighth sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy or Devarim. It is one of the shortest of the weekly readings with only forty verses. The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence. “You are standing (Nitzavim) today, all of you before the Lord, your God.…” This sedrah does not contain any of the 613 commandments. According to some commentators this is the end of Three Discourses that have comprised the book of Devarim up to this point. Other commentators contend that Moshe is speaking on the last day of his life. If you read these words as the declaration of an old man who is weary from responsibility but determined to instill hope in the people who are leaving him and whom his leaving, they take on a special majesty and poignancy. The language is so majestic that commentary, at one level, almost seems self-defeating. I would suggest that you read the text aloud, at least once. Ignore the footnotes and listen for the sound. There are no new themes this week. The whole portion is “Recurring Themes.”
Moshe opens with a reminder that we are a covenanted people. The detailed mentioning of so many different groups in the audience indicates that the covenant and the Torah are for all Jews. The reference to those “not here” means that this covenant is for all times and for all Jews. We may turn away from our birthright, but it is always there waiting for us.
IdolatryMoshe follows with yet another admonition about our old nemesis, worshipping idols. Moshe shows insight into human nature as he warns against those who are arrogant enough to think they can break the laws. This is another one of those themes that resonates throughout Jewish teachings. In Pirke Avot, Yochanan, son of Berokah, says, “Whosoever profanes the name of Heaven in secret will suffer the penalty in public….” (4:4)
Justice System/Communal ResponsibilityThe reference is to 29:28. “The secret (things) belong to the Lord our God; but things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, to do all the word of this law.” Some commentators might contend that this reinforces a basic concept of the Jewish judicial system. God is the ultimate judge. You might beat the jury, but you cannot hide from the ultimate judgment. At the same time, the second half of the verse would indicate that we are responsible not only for our own conduct but for helping others with theirs.
Elul and The Days of AweHow appropriate to read the first ten verses of Chapter 30 just before or just after Selichot Services. After we have endured the blessings and the curses, when we are ready to “return,” God will find us no matter where exile has taken us and He will restore us. Of course the concept of exile is spiritual as well as physical. So as we utter the penitential prayers, the sedrah assures us that they are being heard.
Torah is for EverybodyThe words of 30:11-14 say it all so beautifully:. “…it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.” Unlike other religions, Torah is open to all Jews. There are leaders and teachers, but they do not own the text. According to some, Torah study has a similarity to prayer. It is another avenue for reaching out to God.
The Choice“11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off.
12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?
13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?
14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.
15. See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil;
16. In that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God shall bless you in the land which you are entering to possess.
17. But if your heart turns away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;
18. I announce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days upon the land, to which you are going over the
19. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live;
20. That you may love the Lord your God, and that you may obey his voice, and that you may cleave to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days; that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (31:11-20).
In brilliantly clear language, Moshe lays out the choice: Good and Evil, Life or Death. But it is exactly that, our choice. “’Therefore choose life.’ Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility, that is, freedom of the will. ‘All is in the hands of God, except the fear of God,’ is an undisputed maxim of the Rabbis. And ‘to subject our will to the will of our father in Heaven’ is the great purpose of man’s life one earth. According to the historian Josephus, the doctrine of Free-will was maintained by the Pharisees both against the Sadducees, who attributed everything to chance, and the Essenes, who ascribed all the actions of man to predestination and Divine Providence. ‘Free-will is granted to every man. If he desires to incline towards the good way, and be righteous he has the power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way, and be a wicked man, he has also the power to do so. Since this power of doing good or evil is in our own hands, and since all the wicked deeds which we have committed have been committed with our full consciousness, it befits us to turn in penitence and forsake our evil deeds; the power of doing so being still in our hands. Now this matter is a very important principle; nay it is the pillar of the Law and of the commandments.’” (Maimonides as rendered in the Hertz Pentateuch).
There is much that man does not have control over in his physical universe. But “though man cannot always even half control his destiny, God has given the reins of man’s conduct altogether into his hands.” (Hertz Pentateuch) A great deal has been written on the subject of Free-Will versus Predestination versus Life as a Random Crap-shoot. One book that is worth the read (or re-read) on this subject is Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search For Meaning. It is only 154 pages long, but it is a million miles wide and two million miles deep. From the bowels of
Auschwitz he wrote, “…it did not
really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from
us. We needed to stop asking about the
meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being
questioned by life - daily and hourly.
Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action
and right conduct. Life ultimately means
taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to
fulfill the tasks which it constantly set for each individual…Sometimes the
situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by
action. At other times it is more
advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to
realize assets in this way. Sometimes
man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross.” But even in those times a man has the “unique
opportunity” to decide “the way in which he bears his burden.”
All Jews Are GemsThe sedrah opens with a recitation describing all who are present at the acceptance of God’s law including those with the lowest of professions, “From the hewers of your wood to the drawers of your water” (29:10). This verse has spawned many commentaries and rabbinic tales including this one.
“A Chassid, who was a wealthy dealer in gems, was once sitting the presence of Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch. In the course of their conversation the Rebbe spoke highly of certain unlettered folk.‘Rebbe,’ asked the Chassid, ‘why do you make such a fuss of them?’
‘Why, they have many noble qualities,’ said the Rebbe.
‘Well, I can’t see them,’ said the Chassid.
The Rebbe was silent. Later on, he asked the Chassid whether he had brought his package of diamonds with him. The dealer said that he had, but he would prefer to show them to the Rebbe a little later, not in the sunlight, so that they could be seen to their best advantage. Later, the diamond dealing Chassid opened the package in a nearby room, arranged the gems carefully on a table, and pointed out a particular stone to the Rebbe, saying: ‘this one is something really special!’
‘I can’t see anything in it,’ said the Rebbe.
‘Ah, but you have to be a connoisseur to know how to look at diamonds!’ said the Chassid.
‘Every Jew too is something really special,’ said the Rebbe, ‘but you have to be a connoisseur to know how to look at him.’”
The Nameless ShabbatAs Barry Holtz and Behtamie Horowitz point out in their commentary on Nitzavim entitled “It Depends on each of Us”, there are several Sabbaths with special names. The Sabbath before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol. The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of the Return. But there is no special name for the Sabbath before that most holy of days, Rosh Hashanah. Since the Torah portion Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah the sedrah itself must contain a message that makes it a harbinger for the upcoming event. The sedrah begins, “You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God.…” (29:9) Just as the Israelites were standing before God to hear Moshe’s final words, so are all of us today standing before Him who is the Judge of us all. Furthermore, we are all seeking to be inscribed in the Book of Life and Moshe urges us to follow the laws of God and Life, “…therefore (you) choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.” (30:19) When the Sedrah opens it uses the plural form of the word “You.” Later when the Sedrah urges us to choose life, it uses the singular form of the word “you.” Why the change? Possibly to remind us that renewal for another year depends on the behavior of the whole house of
Hewers of Woods, Drawers of Water - Unsung Heroes“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads…your elders…your officers…the hewer of thy wood and the drawer of thy water.” As the story below reminds us, the covenant belongs to all of the Jewish people. This means that in Judaism, there are no mundane people and that the most mundane act can be a mitzvah in the truest sense of the term.
When Rebbitzin Mirl, the saintly wife of the sage Reb Avraham Yehoshou Heschel of Apta heard that Reb Yaakov the wagon-driver had died she cried out in grief. The sage’s students were surprised to hear her express such anguish over this simple man. When she had calmed down she explained. “It once happened that on a freezing winter’s day I was left without a single splinter of firewood in the house. I went to Reb Yaakov who immediately harnessed his horse and drove off to the forest. He came back with a wagon stacked high with firewood. He stoked up the stove in the study hall and dozens of you young scholars were then able to sit there and study Torah in warmth and comfort. On another occasion I ran out of water - not a single drop left. Again I went off to Reb Yaakov. He brought me a huge barrel full of water, so that I was able to cook in honor of Shabbat.” “Master of the Universe!” she pleaded in conclusion. “May it be Your will that from every piece of wood that he brought, an angel be born - to speak up now on his behalf. And may all those drops of water be transformed into so many merits - to turn out and greet him as arrives in the World Above.” Apparently the Heavenly court heard and heeded her prayers for this simple man was immediately admitted into the Heavenly Host. (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory.)
Vayeilech (And he went)31:1-30 Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Vayeilech is the ninth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion. Due to a quirk of linguistics, the first Hebrew word is the second English word and vice versa. “Moshe went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all of
.” Vayeilech contains only thirty verses and is
the shortest of them all. When it is
read alone, Vayeilech is the sedrah for Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return
also called Shabbat T’Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance. This is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur. Moshe has finished the third
and final discourse. According to some
commentators, this is the last day of Moshe’s life. To better appreciate the sedrah, close your
eyes. Envision Moshe walking through the
camp, stopping and visiting with each tribal group much as somebody would do if
he or she were leaving a large gathering to go on a long trip. While we have not finished with the Torah, we
have finished with the commandments.
Vayeilech contains the last two commandments bringing us to a full
complement of 613 Mitzvoth. Israel
612. The obligation of the entire Israelite community to assemble every seven years to hear the Torah read publicly (31:10-13).
613. The commandment that each Jew should write a Torah scroll during his lifetime (31:19).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin as edited by this author.
TransitionIn verses 1-6 and verse 14, Moshe’s departure is stated in obvious language. He is still upset about not going into the Promised Land, but this time there is no arguing or blaming as we saw earlier. This is consistent with the behavior of a dying man who has made peace with himself. Moshe set standards on how to live and how to die as well. He is Moshe Rahbeynu, Moses the Teacher, in the truest sense of that term. Beginning with verse 7, we see Moshe advancing Joshua as his successor. This transition is consistent with what seems to be a Jewish passion for bringing order to what seems like a chaotic universe. The concept of lineage is extremely important in establishing intellectual and religious credibility as can be seen, for example, in the opening verses of the Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers.
TorahThe sedrah contains only two commandments and they both concern the Torah. Moreover, these are the last two commandments in the Torah. Placement would seem to be an indication of importance. The first commandment has to do with the public reading of the Torah, the second with the need to write one. Interestingly, we appear to have expanded the public reading aspect. This probably began with Ezra the Scribe after the return from the Babylonian Exile. According to some, it was really Ezra who began the real work of democratizing the Torah and making it available to all of the Israelites. At any rate, we have gone from reading the Torah once every seven years to reading it three times a week as well as on festivals and holidays. At the same time we appear to have lessened the writing requirement. The requirement for fulfilling the command about writing a Torah has gone from writing a whole scroll, to writing one letter, to purchasing books of Jewish learning. Of course, many congregations have taken advantage of this and have used the purchase of a letter, or a line or a sedrah as fundraising activity for the repair or purchase of a Torah. We should also note that women as well as men were to hear the reading of the Torah. Obviously from Moshe’s point of view, our modern practice of educating women is the right thing to do. One can see from the text that the Torah is at the core of Judaism since it was to be placed just outside of the Holy Ark. There are some interesting commentaries on the significance of placing the scroll of the law just outside of the
PredestinationStarting with verse 16, God tells Moshe that the Israelites are going to sin and suffer accordingly. In verses 27 and 29, Moshe repeats this. How do we square this with the message of choice or free will that we read in the previous sedrah? Moshe is basing his prophecy on past performance. But we do not have to be prisoners of our past. There is great deal written about this apparent contradiction in concepts. Rabbi Akiva says, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the amount of work.” (Pirke Avot,
Where is God?Verses 17 and 18 have been challenging for commentators over the centuries. The concept of God hiding his face has taken on an even more troubling manifestation since the Holocaust. If you want to pursue this topic, I suggest you might try The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel. Since this is set in the seventeenth century
Torah as the Foundation for a Modern Jewish StateMicah Odenheimer finds the command that the Jewish people gather every seven years to hear the reading of the Torah should serve as the blueprint for a modern Jewish state. In a Jewish state i.e.,
SelichotNo sooner do we finish with Shabbat than we gather for the recitation for Selichot. For those of us who are confused by the apparent “floating” of these nighttime penitential utterances, the following might be of some use.
The following is a “neutral” description of this custom http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Selichot.html
The Man/The Book: This haftarah is a product of the writing of the Second Isaiah, who is also called the Isaiah of the Exile. This unknown author produced the last 26 chapters of the Book of Isaiah. His was a message of hope and imminent redemption offered to the Jewish community of
was the community who had been variously exiled by the Assyrians and the
Babylonians and was the remnant of the Jewish people.
The Message: The theme is that of a triumphant restoration. The prophet opens with imagery of
Bride reclaimed by her Divine Groom. The
motif then shifts to that of the Divine Warrior who, in words reminiscent of
the Haggadah’s description of the Divine Avenger moving against the Egyptians
on the night of the Tenth Plague, will take personal charge in the defeat of Israel ’s
The Theme-Link: The link here is with the calendar, not with the Torah portion. This is the last of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation, which were intended to comfort the Israelites after the destruction of the
Also, the tone of these prophetic
portions helps to prepare us for the upcoming High Holiday Season with its
theme of restoration, repentance and return. The compilers of the haftarot seemed to have
an unwritten rule of trying to end on an upbeat note. In a message that is appropriate for the Exiles
of Babylonia as well as modern man who suffers his own forms of exile, the
prophet offers one final word of hope and reconciliation, “Afflicted in their
affliction, the Divine Presence saved them.
In love and pity God redeemed them and carried them and raised them high
in all times past.” After the
affliction, after the suffering and atonement, there is Divine forgiveness. Temple
Copyright, September, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin