Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
On the last day of your life, what lessons would you choose to impart to those closest to you? In Parashat Nitzavim, we become privy to the activities of Moses during his last hours on earth. Not surprisingly, it is an atypical schedule, and much can be learned from this relatively brief Torah portion.
Moses begins by assembling all the Israelites–men and women, rich and poor, old and young. He reiterates the covenant that God entered into with the Jewish people at Sinai, and he beseeches them not to stray from that sacred agreement: “Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away from being with HaShem, our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 29:17)
Moses warns of the most dire of consequences should the Jewish people stray again–conflagrations, plagues–and that in future generations, nations will say that the fate that became the children of Israel was visited upon them because they again forsook God’s covenant.
But Moses doesn’t stop at merely reiterating the original covenant. He adds an additional element: collective responsibility: “[T]he hidden [sins] are for HaShem, our God, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of the Torah” (29:28). Collective responsibility — one person concerned for the other — is the spirit of Klal Yisrael (the people of Israel). It’s the attitude that states, ‘I am responsible not only for my sins, but for the communal sins of our people which are committed openly.’
The directive, then, is to follow God’s commandments by practicing Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. This is partially accomplished by the communal effort to increase adherence to God’s commandments. However, rather than proselytizing, we seek to increase this commitment by setting an example for our community, and hence for the rest of the world.
At first, this sounds pretty daunting. But is it? Moses explains that it may not be. In Chapter 30, verses 11-15, Moses reveals that the way to fulfill this commandment is not hidden, not distant. “It is not in heaven [for you] to say ‘who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?’ Nor is it across the sea [for you] to say ‘who can cross to the other side of the sea and take it for us so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather the matter is very near to you–in your mouth and in your heart–to perform it….I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring…”
So God’s commandments are not in the far reaches of the heavens nor across the vast seas, the borders of the outer reaches of man’s imagination in biblical times. Rather, they are right in your mouth, if you speak of them, and right in your heart, if you adhere to them. Doing so is the way to choose life and avoid death and darkness.
We choose to help fulfill one of these commandments through our daily work–that of helping to heal and repair the world by taking responsibility for those less fortunate than we are. In doing so, we help increase the level of kindness and goodness in this world both through our actions and through the example we set to the wider community.
So remember, each time you think a goal is insurmountable, unachievable, or unrealistic, it in fact may be well within your grasp. While you may search the heavens or across the seas don’t overlook those places right before you–your mouth and your heart–as the repository of the answers you are seeking.
Healing and repairing the world starts with each of us, small step by small step. And even if you aren’t Moses or the leader of some other great nation you can still create a wonderful legacy for your loved ones and your community through adherence to God’s commandments.
Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.