Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Where Do You Stand?

Where do you stand as a Jew? On this Shabbat we are called upon to focus upon this question. Nitzavim means “to stand firm” and in these days, as we count down the final hours until Rosh HaShanah, this Shabbat is a moment of welcome quiet. Even as the students among us have just begun their new Academic Year, Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of our Spiritual Year, and it’s time to consider where you stand – not where you find yourself, but where you stand, firmly and clear-eyed, aware of what your stance means in the world.

The most well-known text within this week’s parashah is probably Devarim 30.10 and following:

י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס}

10 if You will listen to the voice of G-d, to keep G-d’s commandments and statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to G-d with all your heart, and with all thy soul.

יא  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

יב  לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יג  וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יד  כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.  {ס}

14 But the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

טו  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil… http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0530.htm

These words spoken by Moshe in his parting speech to the people of Israel are often used to justify rabbinic authority to interpret laws without any sense of Divine sanction. However they are also seen as encouraging: (1) Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming, but it’s not, really – once you get into it, there’s a rhythm and a sense to the structure of Jewish life that carries you quite supportively. (2) Verse 14 has been interpreted as indicating verbal teshuvah, atonement – the words are right there in your mouth and in your heart, just let them out. And (3) these words are spoken to us as we stand, all together, on the other side of the Jordan River, looking across at the destination we’ve dreamed of together for so long.

The second of the double parashah that we read this week is called VaYelekh, which translates as “going”. The two names teach a deep truth: you cannot begin to move purposely toward your goal until you know where you are starting from, where you stand – and your going is dependent upon the strength of the place from which you come.

This Motza’ey Shabbat (the end of Shabbat) Jews all over the world will gather for a special evening time of Selikhot study and prayer, to help us focus upon just these essential questions. And then, soon after, we will be together, welcoming the start of a spiritual New Year, considering ourselves and our lives. With the help of your Torah study, may you see more clearly than ever where you stand, and may you stand more firmly than ever when you consider where you are going.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

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