The week's Shabbat is very special, for it falls during the Yamim Nora'im -- the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We have a special reading from the Prophets, which stretches across three authors to bring us the message we wish to hear on this occasion: Hosea, Joel and Micah. The reading in the Torah this Shabbat is the portion of Va'yelekh, which begins with the following passage: "Va'yelekh Moshe va'ydaber et kol hadvarim ha'eleh el bnai Yisrael -- So Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel." [Deu. 31:1] One is left in the dark as to what "there words" are? Is it the last speech, which began in the last chapter, or is it the entire book of Devarim, which is the same "hadevarim ha'ele" which we read in the opening of the book as we have here? Or, conceivably, are we told that Moses spoke "hadevarim Ha'ele which makes reference to the entire Torah? While we are not told, the sages tell us that this particular passage refers to the entire recitation of the book of Devarim, which now comes to an end with the departure of Moshe and the ascent of Joshua to the role of leader. Indeed, we read a little further in our portion, "Then the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, the time for you to die is near; call Joshua, and present yourselves at the tent of meeting, that I may commission him." So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves at the tent of meeting. And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the doorway of the tent." [Deu. 31:14,15]
God tells Moshe in the presence of Joshua that the people are going to stray away from His teaching and that they will lose their connection with God. "Then My anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide My face from them, and they shall be consumed, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day, 'Is it not because our God is not among us that these evils have come upon us?' "But I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they will do, for they will turn to other gods." [Deu. 31:17,18] And God tells Moshe to devise a system to keep the words of God's message fresh in the people's mind: "ve'ata kitvu lakhem et hashira hazot velamda et bnai Yisrael sima befihem lema'an tihye li hashira hazot le'ed bivnai Yisrael -- Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, in order that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel." [Deu. 31:19]
Humanity has a tendency to idealize and put on a pedestal that which it admires and reveres. We do it with our finest art, our greatest talent, our best achievements. We keep it far and away from the mundane, the everyday banalities. We build a fence around it and say, "this is good -- stay away from it." Moshe recognized this trait of human nature, and devised a message to keep us from doing this to his crowning glory -- Torat Moshe, his teaching, inspired and dictated by God Himself, in His own Personhood. The greatness of Torah, the honor due to it because of its source, God, and its announcer and interpreter, Moshe -- makes it almost automatic to assume that it would be the most highly elevated and prized article, deposited in the most inaccessible place in the highest heavens. This inaccessibility is not (God forbid) a sign of difficulty or rejection -- quite the opposite, it is a direct consequence of its great value. Thinking of such a Torah, so far and away from us, will at once fill us with awe and yearning, with love and longing, and will endear it to us: distance makes the heart grown fonder, it is said. It's alleged pronouncements and wisdom will melt our hearts and inspire us to write poetry and prose -- and spin legends. It will drive us to draw near to it, to seek even its shadow -- to allow us a mere reflection of its glory. The further it will be, the more mankind will perceive it to be priceless. The more difficult it will be to approach, even so will it be the more worthwhile.
However, this is not what Moshe wants -- and, of course, it is not what God has planned for Torah and for us. For in spite of all the beauty and inspiration that the poetry of love and yearning can evoke in the human heart -- the purpose of Torah is not to reflect but to direct -- not to inspire but to instruct. One should not talk a good game -- one should play the game, and get the exercise that the game was meant to allow us to have. Man can invent for himself ideals and conjure for himself mystical magical love objects. God's teaching is real and concrete, every minute of every hour of every day of the rest of our lives it should be with us.
So God tells Moshe to challenge the people and prepare them to return to Him, to go back to their time of innocence born of the fact that they did not have the Torah -- but only the 'promise' of God, and then commence anew, because you shall have the words of 'this song' which you shall teach to the sons of Israel, actually put it on their lips Then it shall be that this song will be a witness for Him, that the sons of Israel want to be His, and he shall be their God. The Torah is complemented and completed by the words of the prophet: "Shuva Yisrael ad Adona'y Elohekha ki khashalta ba'avonekha... Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sins have brought you down. Bring your petitions, and return to the Lord. Say to him, "Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us, so that we may offer you the sacrifice of praise. Assyria cannot save us, nor can our strength in battle. Never again will we call the idols we have made 'our gods.' No, in you alone do the orphans find mercy." The Lord says, "Then I will heal you of your idolatry and faithlessness, and my love will know no bounds, for my anger will be gone forever! I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven. It will blossom like the lily; it will send roots deep into the soil like the cedars in Lebanon. Its branches will spread out like those of beautiful olive trees, as fragrant as the cedar forests of Lebanon. My people will return again to the safety of their land. They will flourish like grain and blossom like grapevines. They will be as fragrant as the wines of Lebanon." [Hosea 14:2-8] "Where is another God like you, who pardons the sins of the survivors among his people? You cannot stay angry with your people forever, because you delight in showing mercy. Once again you will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!" [Micah 7:18-19] "Once again you will have all the food you want, and you will praise the Lord your God, who does these miracles for you. Never again will my people be disgraced like this. Then you will know that I am here among my people of Israel and that I alone am the Lord your God. My people will never again be disgraced like this. [Joel 2:26-27] There's hope for us, yet!
Nitzavim - Va'yelekh 2004 Bat Mitzvah of Zoe
The reading in the Torah this Shabbat is a double portion called Nitzavim - Va'yelekh, and begins with the following passage: “Atem nitzavim ha’yom kulkhem lifney adona’y eloheykhem – You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord your God--the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water -- to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today; in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the Lord our God, but also with those who are not here with us today.” [Deu. 29:9-14] This event, which took place at the end of Moshe's leadership career, spanning over forty years, sounds on the face of it like a repetition of the experience of Sinai. However, there is a big difference: God is not coming down to talk to His people Israel.
You are standing before the congregation this Shabbat, Zoe, and you are a breath away from standing before Moshe on the day of his farewell address. He spoke to the Israelites, and he spoke to you. He made a covenant with them, and this Shabbat you are becoming part of this covenant. Here it is, in the words of Moshe. “Re’eh natati lefanekha hayom et hakha’yim v’et hatov ve’et hamavet v’et hara – See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; 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. But if your heart turns away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 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 Jordan, to enter and possess. 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.” [Ibid. 30:15-19]
The covenant presents a choice. Last week we had a bar-mitzvah of a young man, who, because of his mother’s family connection and the brother who was bar-mitzvah before him, knew from early on that it is expected that he will have this commitment as well. You, however, were put to the test with no foreknowledge. You had to find the path, to know what you want, and ask to be a part of it. I praised last week’s bar-mitzvah boy on his achievement – and I applaud your personal commitment and the choice that you made.
The statement in the Torah can seem a little scary, “I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil” – does it mean that if you choose to “worship other gods” you will be struck by lightening or die in an earthquake to fulfill the words, “you shall surely perish?” If this is so, what kind of a God is this? A vengeful force that does not allow anyone to live unless they follow His rules. Yes, and how do we explain the fact that so many people in this world do not follow His mitzvot, and they do quite well?
How can we believe in face of these contradictions and what seems to be a God with qualities that are not very lofty and fine?
The answer to these questions are easy to explain, and you will learn that all our worries are over issues that are not really issues at all. Is God vengeful and petty? No, indeed. God is the creating force that made this universe and all things that exist. God created all life, everything that is good and beautiful and worthy in its own way. Humanity was put on this earth to eat and drink and celebrate His creation.
Thus, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing” refers to Jewish life and Jewish death, Jewish blessings and Jewish curses. The one who makes a choice to not live a Jewish life, to not count himself as a Jew, to not support Jewish causes – is he not counted, in terms of Jewish values, to be a non-person, a non-patricipant, or “dead?”
And you, dear Zoe, who made a choice to become an active part of the covenant, even as those Israelites who stood before Moshe that long ago – are you not praise-worthy? Well, I don’t think there is anyone here who does not know full well the answer to this question. We praise you and we salute you, and we wish you a long and fruitful relationship with the teachings of Moshe, with Torah and mitzvot. May you be blessed as Sarah and Rebecca were blessed, as Rachel and Leah, Deborah and Ruth, Yokheved and Hannah. And may the Almighty confirm your choice by making you a role-models to countless other yound women who will accept the challenge and make the right choice – choosing life!
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