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Parashat Nitzavim 5778 — 09/08/2018

Parashat Nitzavim 5778 — 09/08/2018

Devarim 29:9-30:20

Note: Parshiyyot Nitzavim and Vayelech are both very short (70 verses total) and are usually read together. If, however, there is a Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, as there is this year, we need an “extra” parashah, so they are split apart and read on two separate weeks – Nitzavim on the Shabbat before Rosh haShanah and Vayelech on the Shabbat after (Shabbat Shuvah).

Parashat Nitzavim begins with a restatement of the Covenant between Gd and the Jewish people. This time, however, Moses points out that the covenant is binding not only on those of that generation, who were of course present to accept the obligations of the Covenant, but also with “whoever is not standing here today” (29:14). How can one generation obligate all future generations in a set of obligations, albeit there are attendant rewards? Isn’t everyone entitled to make his or her own decision? In our generation we certainly seem to think so, given the number of Jews who completely and blithely ignore our covenantal obligations.

Abarbanel, as usual, reviews the responses to this question from the Rabbinic literature and then posits his own response. One of the standard responses is that the souls of all Jews were present at Mt. Sinai and accepted the Torah when it was given. Abarbanel argues that this cannot be the answer because souls don’t perform mitzvot – bodies do! Of course the soul must be in the driver’s seat, but if the body was not there, it cannot be obligated by the soul alone. I would add that this idea that all Jewish souls were present is a completely unverifiable claim, and is not an explanation that will satisfy anyone who questions the binding nature of the Sinai revelation on future generations.

Abarbanel reframes the question entirely. Rather than focusing on the individual souls’ responses to the Covenant, he  considers our relationship with Gd as both that of a servant to his master, and of a child to his father. In both these cases, the status and obligation of the parents are passed down to the children. The child of a slave is a slave. A slave belongs totally to the master; it is as if his own individuality is nullified. Of course this is horrible abuse and oppression when it comes to interpersonal relationships. When it comes to our relationship with Gd, Who created us out of nothing, gave us existence, gave us individuality, gives us food and water and air, gave us talents and abilities, gave us consciousness of who we are and our relationship to Him, it is merely a statement of reality. In truth, we own nothing, and we owe Gd everything – “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

What mitigates this seemingly harsh assessment is that Gd is also our loving Father and Mother. Our responsibility to Gd is enshrined in the 10 Commandments: Honor your father and your mother. In return, Gd gives us unconditional love, more so than any flesh-and-blood parent could ever do. We are obligated by the terms of the Covenant to love Gd and to serve him with all our hearts and all our souls. How many times have we not upheld our end of the bargain, yet Gd never backs out of His end. The Jewish people still lives and thrives, despite all the blows we have sustained – and this purely through Divine
intervention, because if we relied on the natural course of history, we’d be long gone and forgotten.

Abarbanel goes on to affirm that there is a deeper level to our Covenant – that it is part of the actual structure of the universe: If not for my Covenant day and night, I would not have set the statutes of heaven and earth (Jer 33:25).  In other words, it is through Israel’s Torah study and performance of mitzvot that the creation – both physical and non-physical – is sustained! How are we to understand this?

We have often discussed the fact that Torah is the blueprint of creation, as our Sages tell us: Gd looked into Torah and created the world (Zohar). For this to be the case, Torah and Gd must, in some way, be coextensive. Certainly there cannot be two uncreated, eternal entities (i.e. Gd and Torah); Torah then must be some aspect of Gd. I believe this is borne out by the prayer Elokai N’tzor, which is said at the end of every Amidah. After asking Gd to save us from all negativity, we say: Do it for the sake of Your Name, Do it for the sake of Your Right Hand, Do it for the sake of Your Holiness, Do it for the sake of Your Torah. We have two pairs of attributes: Name (Essence) – Right Hand (activity) and Holiness (Essence) – Torah (activity). As it were the first member of the pair expresses Gd’s inward, transcendental nature, while the second represents Gd’s interaction with creation, or outer, active nature.

Our responsibility under the Covenant is to “study Torah” – ideally constantly.  What does this mean? Ordinarily it is taken to mean academic study of our sacred texts – Written Torah and Oral Torah (Talmud and the Rabbinic literature).  But mere intellectual learning, as exciting and expanding as it may be, does not, in and of itself, change our behavior for the better. On the other hand, direct contact of the mind with the level of Torah – that is, the transcendent, and infusing the nature of the transcendent into the nature of the mind, does in fact purify the mind and the body, and directly brings our behavior into alignment with Torah, which is Gd’s Will. In addition, the performances (mitzvot) prescribed by Torah have a similar effect of attuning our mind, and therefore our behavior, to Gd’s Will.

What Jeremiah is saying is that it is our attunement of our minds with Gd’s Will, with Torah (in its essence, not just words on parchment) that is necessary for heaven and earth to continue existing! This is a remarkable assertion! Why should heaven and earth need us to continue existing?! I think the answer is that creation has a purpose, and that purpose is to become self-aware. The human being is the mechanism by which this takes place. If we are slacking off on our job, what is the purpose of  creation? We see how important and significant our existence and activity is to Gd. Our people has been given a special responsibility, as we are the bearers of Torah. The universe depends on our meeting that responsibility! May we all be inscribed and sealed for a 5779 of peace and fulfillment, and through us to the whole world!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parasshat Nitzavim
In Parshat Nitzavim “standing”, Moses tells us that we stand before Gd as a nation, not a mere collection of people. It is love of Gd and love of one’s neighbor that binds us together and it is this same love that binds together the different aspects of our personality: our thoughts, our feelings, our body, our routines, our career, family, friends….

So love and Love, Universal Love, are vital for us to live our life in unity, wholeness, not a mere collection of fragments. Moses tells our ancestors (and us) that Torah is not far from us, it is near, in our hearts to do. It is the Universal Love that allows us to live in Wholeness.

Moses also warns our ancestors (and us) of the desolation that we will occur if we turn from Torah, but comforts us that we will turn back and Gd will gather us together into the Promised Land.

This means to me that though we close our heart and turn away from Torah, yet at any time, we can open our heart and Torah will be seen there as It Always Is (Torah is the Word of Gd, the Liveliness of Gd, never separate, always there).

When we open our heart, we are new people, descendants of the old people that we no longer are but our descendants, new people, people in whom Torah and Gd are alive in our hearts, our words, our actions and in the response of Gd to us.

Moses tells us we are free to choose: the blessing of Torah, or the desolation of turning from it and he says “You shall choose life.” I think the readers of this Beth Shalom Newsletter are honoring Moses’ words and choosing life.

As Rosh HaShanah nears, this is a reminder that the New Year is not only a New Year in calendar time but an opportunity for a new year in our hearts, souls, thoughts, speech, action and in the response Gd gives us—a time when we open even more to Gd and we become more aware that Gd is always open to us so no part of Gd’s Face is hidden and we remember and live the Oneness which we always are (though we may have hidden from it), and not only remember and live but enjoy everywhere, all around us, Gd/Torah singing to us, dancing to us, in the sky, earth, pebbles, streams and leaves—everywhere.

This is a preview of the opportunity for the celebration of Newness—New Year, New Us, New World.

A great time!

Baruch HaShem