These and Those

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

Shabbaton Dvar Torah, for those of you asked (and those who didn’t!)

Posted on September 16, 2012 by Emma Sevitz

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When we arrive at Nitzavim, we know we are coming to the end of the Five Books of Moses. Only a few parshiot remain: Vayelech, Ha’azinu and V’zot Habrachah. Each of these is like the tone of a closing bell that announces the end of our wanderings b’midbar and the beginning of a new journey into the land.

But we are talking about Torah, so of course there is much more here: We are simultaneously readying to cross the Yarden, and, as we renew the cycle of reading Torah, we are also returning to the wonder of creation. It’s a powerful moment. All of Torah is completed, and like a great, cosmic wheel, it rolls us into the land. And, at the very same time, it turns us toward the mystery of the existence of all. The story of entering the land and the story of creation are set before us as parallel. It’s as if all creation brought us to this moment, that entering the land is inherent in creation.

Maybe at this point in Torah, you fall in love—as I do—with Moshe Rabbeinu. We know he can’t come with us; HE knows he can’t come with us, and he speaks to us with all his heart, out of deep love and deep concern. He tries to remind us to live right, and he does it with great trepidation because he knows from experience that we are going to get it wrong. He tries to inspire, he implores, he cautions, he threatens, anything, everything to get our attention and to impress us with the gravity of his words. The emotional power of his words is so great that it can’t be contained in prose; he moves to song in Ha’azinu and V’zot Ha Brachah. Is it possible that he influenced the great (and many of them, Jewish!) writers of the American musical because the characters in musicals break into song to express the intensity of the moment?

Now, let’s look at this moment: What are we hearing and learning from Moshe? First of all, we are “nitzavim”, that is, “positioned or stationed”, not just “standing”, ayin-mem-dalet. There is deliberateness, readiness in the word “nitzavim”. In Dvarim 30:9-14, we position ourselves as if we are once again at Sinai, and the covenant is renewed with those present and even with those not present. Radical! We don’t even have to be present to win!

Some of us might know that in Reform practice on Yom Kippur morning, instead of reading from Vayikra and B’midbar, we read verses from Nitzavim. So for me, the echo of Nitzavim into Yom Kippur is loud and strong. We continue with Dvarim 30:11-20, and I paraphrase, “This instruction that I bind upon you today is not so beyond comprehension or so far from you that can’t reach it…it’s right here, close to you, in your mouth, in your heart…” It’s speakable, tangible, doable, WOW! I know I am preaching to the choir (forgive the metaphor but it applies well), to a roomful of Jews who embrace Torah every day, speak it, hold it in heart, try to live it. But I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves, especially for those of us who are new to Pardes, that Torah offers itself to us as a beloved and that we can be secure in that embrace. No matter what skill of exegesis or knowledge of commentary we might have, Torah is ours. And if we have any doubt that we are worthy, we can remember that an open heart is all we need. All the rest is icing on the cake, gravy, chocolate sprinkles!

Moshe wants us to know this. He gathers us to him for a last embrace, and invites us to re-live Sinai for a few moments, to see the light, to feel the universe vibrate with Torah, and to allow us to resonate with it.

Baruch Hashem for this gift. Nitzavim.