Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Accessing Revelation

Look Around You


Is the Torah still relevant in our modern world?

Table for Five: Nitzavim-Vayeilech

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed for you, nor is it far away.

Deut. 30:11

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff,  Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

The Torah was given at Sinai. Long ago. But our sages tell us that when a person studies Torah, it is as if he is receiving the Torah from Sinai. When a person teaches his grandson Torah, teaches R. Yehoshua Ben Levi (Talmud Kiddushin 30a) it is as if he is receiving that Torah from Sinai. Maimonides refers to the teachers who gave over the traditions of Torah as maatikei hashemua, a hard phrase to translate. The saintly Rabbi Moshe Shapiro of blessed memory taught that the word maatikei does not simply mean “copy,” but rather biblically actually means to take one thing and move that thing to a new location.

Sinai was not simply an experience at that location. It began there, surely, but it continues on each time a person studies Torah. God spoke at Sinai, but He was and is speaking to us right now. We can still access that revelation. Any perception that a part of the Torah is “no longer relevant” is at odds with this idea. God is speaking to you. The Torah has a relevant message that is designed for your life and your situation and your family. In this moment in history, with our advanced technology and modern lifestyle, the voice of God at Sinai is close and available.

A relationship with God and Torah is accessible. Far from being some sort of abstract distant ideal to yearn for – it is right here. God is talking to us, He is close.

Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”

Things can be far away geographically or psychologically. And things can be concealed because we choose not to see.

In this parsha, God urges us to remember that our relationship with Him is based on an eternal covenant, and we disdain it at our peril. During the long years of exile, many of us would assimilate, not recognizing or feeling the benefits of a Torah-based life. Life free from mitzvot and Torah study may seem alluring, with greater freedom, perhaps a ticket to social acceptance and protection from antisemitism. Social acceptance is the classic double-edged sword, because in free societies we are often accepted and loved into extinction. And antisemites don’t distinguish between Jews who go to shul or who don’t.

Every political system and social order has rules. Today we live in a society that has declared much of time-honored morality not only wrong but “hateful.” Morality decided by human beings is fungible, capricious, and often cruel. Give me God’s rules anytime. They may be strict, but they are designed for our individual and collective stability and psychological good.

The hardest decision of my life was choosing to open my eyes to the Torah that I kept at a distance, fearing it would limit my freedom. In fact, Torah life has opened spiritual, intellectual, and emotional vistas I could never have imagined. Wherever we are in life, geographically or psychologically, we can choose to reach out for the nourishment of God’s wisdom and friendship.

Abe Mezrich, Author, Words for a Dazzling Firmament

At face value, what Moses is saying here is that none of this is impossibly hard. To paraphrase the Gemara in Eruvin: if the Torah were up in Heaven you’d need to rise up to reach it; if it were beyond the sea you’d need to voyage out. But no need, all you need to know and do is right here.

Moses is making a statement about not making excuses. But it’s equally a statement about which world should be infusing which. God sent the Torah down to the mountain to Moses. He sent Moses down to us at the base of the mountain. He told Moses that we had stayed at the mountain long enough – it was time to move on to the Land.

And in that Land, we are commanded to worry about our conduct in war, about making our home safe for others, about rejoicing before God with the widow and the stranger and the poor. We are exhorted to not worship the sun, the moon, and the stars of the sky. We are commanded to not plant a tree – which reaches up to the sky – beside God’s altar.

In other words: God sent the Torah down from above to show us how to look not back up, but all around us. Which makes Moses’ statement into another challenge as well. There is Divine work to be done right here, right now. It’s out in the open and unconcealed. Are we ready to look?

Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Temple Beth Am

How often have you heard someone say, or maybe said it yourself, that learning Torah/Hebrew/Judaism is too hard, or this topic is too complicated, or there is just too much to learn? I find this verse to be one of the most impactful messages in all of Torah. It comes along to assure those who might be overwhelmed by the enormity of the Jewish canon that understanding and embracing Judaism is never too distant or hidden.

We are coming to the end of Deuteronomy and the people are about to enter the land of Israel and become a nation. What specific message might the Torah be teaching us when we consider this particular context? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains that, not unlike the preamble to the Constitution, the book of Deuteronomy is “fundamentally about the creation of a good society based on collective responsibility.” A “good” society is one based on justice, righteousness, equity, and fairness. In essence, the entire project of the Torah is to create a moral society, a task which, our verse tells us, is not “concealed,” nor “far away.” The Torah clearly lays out the ways that the Israelites, and we, in turn, can strive for a more just and moral world. As a people, we know how to do this by remembering what it was like when we were slaves in Egypt and working to make a society that cares for all. These are the building blocks for the project to “create a more perfect union.”

Rabbi Chanan Gordon, Inspirational Speaker

The question that begs to be answered in the oft cited paragraph in parshas Nitzavim – “for this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed for you, nor is it far away” (Devarim: 30:11) – is which commandment is the Torah referring to?

Chazal and many of the commentators interpret this passage as relating to the entire Torah, to all the commandments. In other words, what Hashem is telling us is that the Torah is not some esoteric philosophical treatise. On the contrary, to understand the Torah’s contents, one need only to delve down into one’s innermost self and examine the journey of life and the human condition. According to this view, the Torah deals with issues that are most pertinent and critical for our lives, which is the secret of its eternal nature.

The Ramban disagrees and suggests that the correct interpretation is that this passage is referring to a specific commandment, the obligation to repent for one’s sins.

These differing opinions are complementary. The path of repentance and the path of Torah inevitably converge and become one. The path of Torah and the path of repentance merge into the path of return. It is no coincidence that parshas Nitzavim coincides with Elul on the Jewish Calendar, the month that leads up to Rosh Hashana, the most auspicious opportunity to return. The Torah is the GPS for life, and this is the month to introspect and recalculate.

With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Judy Gruen, Abe Mezrich, Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, and Rabbi Chanan Gordon

“Moses and the Ten Commandments” (detail) by James Tissot, c. 1900

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