Education for Change

The powerful lessons of hakhel and shemittah.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

I consider the most beautiful passage in the Torah to be found in Parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 30:11-14):

AJWS Logo“Surely, this mitzvah that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

One reason I love this passage is because it utterly fails to define “this mitzvah,” leaving each of us to attach our own personal meaning. I understand “this mitzvah” as an amalgam of the interpretations of the medieval commentators Nahmanides and Seforno.

This Mitzvah

Nahmanides says that the phrase refers to the entire Torah, and Seforno explains it as teshuvah–repentance and return. By pairing Torah, which at its essence demands that we pursue justice, and teshuvah, our capacity to right wrongs, we can understand this passage as a mandate to believe that we have an innate capacity to fight the status quo when it is unjust and create change in the world around us.

By telling us that “this mitzvah” resides within us–in our mouths and in our hearts–this passage acknowledges and strongly rejects the human tendency toward defeatism: to convince ourselves that change, hope, and progress are beyond our grasp.

We may sometimes wish that we could be passive receptacles for the difficult, transformative mitzvot that help us enact change in the world around us, that someone else could do this hard work for us, but this passage vehemently rejects that notion. Rather, it insists that the capacity to effect change resides within us.

Yet the passage neglects to tell us how we each can come to actualize and act on this capacity. I believe that the answer lies in the next parashah, Vayelekh (Deut. 31:10-12):

“Every seventh year…you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people–men, women, children and the strangers in your communities–that they may hear and so learn…to observe faithfully every word of this Torah.”

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Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.

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