These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Double Hitter

Posted on September 23, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

I hope you are all well. For those of you who don’t know, I had a computer “emergency” last week – my laptop fell at school and I had to replace my hard drive. So due to technical difficulties, no dvar Torah last week. My apologies. Trust me, I wish I would have been able to send something out. But thank God, this week my new hard drive is up and running! 

There is so much to say about what’s going on in the news, the double-hitter Torah reading (we read 2 parshas this week) and thinking about Rosh Hashana next week. I honestly don’t know where to begin….

The truth is that spending every day with teenagers, you learn a lot about yourself. In so many ways, my students act as mirrors and allow me to reflect on my teaching, my speech, what I want to be, my spiritual development, balancing personal and professional responsibilities. In one of my Talmud classes, we’re learning a section in Tractate Megillah which discusses the logistics of the communal davening experience – how, when and where to pray and read Jewish texts in shul. Specifically, we’re learning about the different requirements for reading Torah in shul versus a megillah, like the book of Esther on Purim. 

The Talmud asks the following question: The Mishna rules that the reader is allowed to either sit or stand when reading the megillah, but how do we know that the reader is required to stand for Torah reading? Rabbi Abahu answers: as the verse teaches in Deuteronomy 5:28, “And you stand here with me”.

Today in class we asked: how does this verse in Deuteronomy prove that the Torah reader MUST stand? In its original context, this verse describes a dialogue between God and Moses. As Moses describes the Revelation at Sinai, Moses recounts that God called him to ascend the mountain and “stand here with me (God)”. In the context of our section in the Talmud, Rabbi Abahu is clearly taking the verse out of its context and creatively interpreting it, to  teach that just as Moses was summoned to “stand” with God, so too the Torah reader in shul is supposed to sense that s/he is “standing with God” while reading Torah and thus cannot sit while reading for the community. 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself (like many of my students): HOW COULD RABBI ABAHU TAKE THE VERSE OUT OF CONTEXT LIKE THAT? That verse in Deuteronomy is totally unrelated to laws of reading Torah! After all, in biblical times, the concept of a shul didn’t even exist. While Rabbi Abahu’s interpretation may seem outlandish to the careful reader of the text, I think it’s also amazingly clever and inspiring. I mean, imagine what it would be like if we felt like we were “standing before God” every time someone read from the Torah in shul … or read Torah at all. Wow!

The first of this week’s parshas is Parshat Nitzavim. In it, the Israelites are gathered, men and women, young and old, to renew their covenantal vows and commit themselves once again to the (biblical) project of keeping God’s commandments. Oddly enough, the text uses language that is very similar to the verse cited in the section of the Talmud we’re learning at school. 

The Torah says in this week’s parsha:
ט  אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. 9 You are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel,
יא  לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ–וּבְאָלָתוֹ:  אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם. 11 that you should enter into the covenant of the LORD your God–and into God’s oath–which the LORD your God makes with you today;
יב  לְמַעַן הָקִים-אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם, …. וְכַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב. 12 that God may establish you this day as a people … and as He swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
יג  וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם, לְבַדְּכֶם–אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-הָאָלָה, הַזֹּאת. 13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath;
יד  כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם, לִפְנֵי, ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. 14 but with him/her that stands here with us today before the LORD our God, and also with him/her that is not here with us today

With Rosh Hashana around the corner and the cycle of Torah reading coming to an end, I hope these words (of Parshat Nitzavim and Rabbi Abahu in the Talmud) will enable us to reflect on our behaviour and ask ourselves: am I behaving in a way that demonstrates my commitment to the ‘mission statement/s’ of the Jewish People? If yes, how can I ensure that I will continue on such a path? If not, how can I redirect my energies and adjust my behaviour so that I may achieve the aims of this mission? 

May we be blessed to feel and BEHAVE as if we are standing before the divine.

Shabbat Shalom!!
G’mar Chatima Tova – May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life!