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Parashat Nitzavim 5776 — 10/01/2016

Parashat Nitzavim 5776 — 10/01/2016

Devarim 29:9-30:20

This year, as many of you are aware, was a “Hebrew leap year” with an extra month added (the 30-day Adar I). A Hebrew leap year can have 383, 384 or 385 days; this year was 385 days long, or exactly 55 weeks. Therefore all the holidays this year fell on the same day of the week as last year. Therefore parshiyyot Nitzavim and Vayelech are split, as they were last year. This gives me the opportunity to repeat what I wrote last year about the calendar!

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh haShanah. In years in which there is no Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot (i.e. when Yom Kippur or Sukkot fall on Shabbat), it is combined with Parashat Vayelech and Parashat HaAzinu is read on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – there are seven days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, not counting the two days of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur themselves, so there is guaranteed to be exactly one Shabbat during that period). If there is a Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, as there is this year (Yom Kippur is on Wednesday, 12 October, and the first day of Sukkot is on Monday, 17 October), then we need an “extra” parashah and Nitzavim and Vayelech are split.

There are a couple of simple rules for remembering when the holidays can fall. Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Friday, because then Yom Kippur would be on Sunday, and it would interfere with the end of Shabbat (you can’t sing Kol Nidre on Shabbat as it has the form of a court proceeding, and you can’t sing it at night, after Shabbat is over, as court proceedings cannot begin after dark), and Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Wednesday, because then Yom Kippur would be on Friday, and one would be unable to prepare for Shabbat, or light the Shabbat candles. In addition, Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Sunday, because then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, which the Rabbis disallowed for historical reasons that would take another two paragraphs to explain. Since Sukkot is on the fifteenth of month of Tishri, it comes on the same day of the week as Rosh haShanah, which is on the first. Similarly, Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd and also falls on the same date. All the months between Nisan and Tishri have fixed lengths – all the possible adjustments to the Jewish calendar take place in the winter – Cheshvan and Kislev can have either 29 or 30 days, and in leap years, such as the outgoing year 5776, an extra 30-day month (Adar I) is added. Since all the months between Nisan (Pesach is the 15th of Nisan) and Tishri are fixed, Rosh haShanah always comes 2 days in the week after Pesach – Pesach 5776 was on Shabbat and Rosh haShanah is on Monday. Since Rosh haShanah can only fall on Shabbat, Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, Pesach can only fall on Thursday, Shabbat, Sunday or Tuesday, and the lengths of Cheshvan and Kislev are adjusted accordingly. Leap years occur 7 times in a 19-year cycle: in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19. The year 5777 is the 1st year of cycle #305 since the creation of the world.

Update for 5777. A normal Hebrew year, where the months alternate between 29 and 30 days (the lunar cycle is very close to 29.5 days), has 354 days, or 50 weeks, 4 days. Therefore the holidays fall 4 days in the week later than the previous year if the current year is a “normal” non-leap year. Rosh haShanah this year is a Monday, so next year it should be 4 days later, i.e. on Friday, but that isn’t allowed, as we have just seen. So this year is a “short” year where both Cheshvan and Kislev have 29 days, the year has 353 days, and next year Rosh haShanah will be on Thursday, with Yom Kippur on Shabbat. It could also have been a “full” year where both months have 30 days, but right now the first of each lunar month has been coming out on about the third day of the lunar cycle, and making the year short is a way to pull things back into line. I found this out actually because I was born on 1 Kislev 5709, but when I had my Jyotish done I was told that it was the third day of the lunar cycle. I have a major cycle change coming up on the second day of Rosh haShanah (2nd of Tishri, but third day of the lunar cycle), so we have picked up one day in the past 68 years!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming…

Nitzavim is always read right before Rosh haShanah, and therefore the concept of t’shuvah is very much on the agenda. R. Steinsaltz identifies another component of our parashah as opposed to the previous one – the component of individual choice:

Parashat Nitzavim contains, besides the element of teshuva, an additional element that likewise is not found in the preceding parasha: the element of persuasion. Parashat Ki Tavo establishes the facts, as a physician does: “If you follow my instructions, you will live another three months. If you do otherwise, the consequences will be different.” In Parashat Nitzavim, however, we find, more than once, persuasion to choose one option over the other: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death … Choose life” (Deut. 30:19).

Now why on earth would anyone choose death!?! Our strongest fear is death, because it’s annihilation – the end of the life we’ve known for so long. Our fear of death is apparently stronger than our fear of pain and suffering, as evidenced by the number of terminal patients who choose to undergo painful and often useless procedures in the hope of prolonging their lives by a few days or weeks. Choosing life seems to be the obvious choice.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, “choose life” can be read as “choose real life” – that is the eternal life of the spirit, and not the ephemeral life of pursuit of material, sensual pleasure. In this case, there can be confusion in peoples’ minds as to what the choice actually is. To those to whom the spirit is something intangible, invisible, and therefore non-existent, choosing life might well mean going for what feels good in the moment – “eat, drink and be merry.” For someone whose life centers around spiritual concerns, “choose life” would generally lead to very different choices than those of his materialistic colleague.

A second point is this: even when we are focused on spiritual life, it is sometimes very difficult to figure out what is the correct path. I don’t think it helps to say “Follow the Bible,” or even “Follow the halachah.” The Bible has to be interpreted – there are many statements in the Bible that our Sages tell us cannot be taken literally (“an eye for an eye” being one of the most notable ones), and I don’t believe there is any part of the Bible that can be read only for its surface meaning. Great poets manage to package a whole range of meanings into their words – do we expect less of Gd?!

Simply following the halachah is somewhat better, but to master all the fine points of halachah is the task of a lifetime. Without such mastery, the rules and guidelines remain locked in the books of halachah, and are not available to us when we need them. We need instant access to a decision-making capability that moves at the speed of life.

The Torah speaks of choosing the good, and advises us to choose life. However, when one must implement the choice in reality, it is not always clear which path to choose… If the reality were clear to us, we would not commit so many errors.

Sometimes one makes a decision based on his perception of the reality, and afterward – even if it becomes clear that the decision was made on the basis of mistaken assumptions – he can no longer withdraw the decision that he made. One chooses what he thinks is a blessing, and he ends up being totally subservient to it, even though it has already become a curse for him.

In other instances, the question whether something is a blessing or a curse is completely subjective. For one person it could be a curse, but for someone else it could be a blessing. It could be that now it is a curse, but at another time it will be a blessing.

Now R. Steinsaltz has upped the ante. In choosing what is the right path, we have to be able to account for our subjective biases, our sometimes flawed perceptions, and whatever changes we will be going through in the rest of our lives, as well as the changes in our environment. Is it any wonder most futures traders lose money?

So what is a person to do? Let’s take an example from sports. A top-notch athlete, or any performing artist for that matter, has practiced his or her moves thousands and thousands of times. The muscle memory is automatic. Many of these performers have described an internal state where there is only the present moment, and they are completely focused on the task at hand, be it delivering a pitch or singing an aria. The ego is completely detached, and they become, as it were, a channel for nature to express itself. When someone is in that kind of a zone, everything is done to perfection, because nature itself is doing the doing. The person, the individual, has prepared him or herself, and can now stand aside and let nature take over. Performers’ own descriptions of this experience are virtually indistinguishable from the descriptions of spiritual experiences by great saints.

There is a similar phenomenon in the Torah world, and in some ways it answers our question about how we are to take right action. This is something known as da’at Torah – the “mind of the Torah.” The idea is this: although the Torah is infinite, and we cannot plumb its full depth or meaning intellectually, by steeping ourselves in Torah, and by learning personally from a great teacher, gradually our awareness itself expands and our mind comes to be in tune with the “mind of Torah.” We know, intuitively, what Torah would have us do. We no longer have to choose life, we live life, spontaneously and naturally. We have made Gd’s Will our will.

Haftarah: Yishaya 61:10-63:9

This is the last of the “Seven of Consolation.” It begins “I shall rejoice intensely with Hashem, my soul shall exult with my Gd, for He has robed me in the raiment of salvation, in a robe of righteousness has He cloaked me …” It ends with a promise by Gd to take vengeance on the enemies of Israel, and Israel’s exaltation above all the nations. The intense rejoicing with Gd we can understand – we will finally become reconnected with Gd in a permanent way, no longer capable of sin, filled with da’at Torah. What are we to make of the almost blood-curdling descriptions of the downfall of our enemies. Gd says that he alone will destroy Edom, the original “evil empire.” Edom is the progenitor of the Roman Empire, which destroyed the Temple, and which is also a major progenitor of Western, materialistic civilization. What do we see Western Civilization doing? It is destroying itself, poisoning food, water, air for fun and profit, mostly the latter. It has become materialism run wild, without a spiritual basis, and the material world, when we (attempt to) cut it off from its basis in the transcendent, cannot survive. In 2008, when my friend Marie and I watched the financial markets collapse, she commented, “This isn’t an economic problem, it’s a spiritual problem.” Truer words were never spoken, neither by Yishaya almost 3000 years ago, nor today. We had better start choosing life instead of money before it’s too late.

L’Shanah Tovah to all!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Nitzavim

The essence of this parsha seems to me to be that all Israel, all generations, stand before (Nitzavim) Gd with a heart and soul that Gd purifies so that we may “Love the Lord (our) Gd with all our heart and soul”.

This would be a heart that is fully open, no taint.

Only with such a heart and soul could we love Gd with all our heart and soul.

How does Torah recommend we, from our side, enter into the covenant with Gd to honor His Torah so we may enjoy his blessings? There are 613 commandments, hard to keep them all in mind, they need to be spontaneously in our heart to do.

The parsha concludes with the answer:

11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.

יאכִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא:

12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?”
יבלֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:

13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?”
יגוְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:

14. Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.
ידכִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ:


So the natural feelings of our heart to choose Good — Gd’s commandments — over non-good — the choices of our selfish ego are available and we can trust our feelings, the kind and happy acts we feel to do. With this trust, this simplicity, we love Gd with all our heart and soul and it naturally follows that we love our neighbor as our self/Self and naturally do all the other mitzvot as the occasion for them arise.

Baruch HaShem