Continuation of Moshe’s final speech
Renewal of the Eternal Covenant between God and the entire nation, not just a select few
Promise of God’s Ingathering of Exiles
Power of Repentance
Accessibility of the Torah to all; it is not too mysterious or remote or distant
Using one’s Free Choice to choose goodness and life
Two Parshiot that are one
The Lubavitch Rebbe cites Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s opinion that Netzavim and Vayeilech (next week’s Torah reading) are really one parsha (and usually read together).
In the opening verse Moshe reminds the people: “Atem Netzavim Hayom”, “You are standing firmly today, all of you together before God your God”. The Rebbe notes that the use of the more forceful word Netzavim instead of omdem (also meaning standing) emphasizes that we are to stand firm and unshakable in our belief. We stand fully conscious of the presence of God, bound together as one nation—“Ish Echad B’Layv Echad”.
Parshat Vayeilech begins with “Moshe went and spoke the following words to all Israel.”
The word Netzavim connotes stability, reliability and strength. Vayeilech is about movement, growth and expansion. The Rebbe thinks that the linking of “standing still” and “moving” is the eternal reminder that that our growth (upward movement in financial, social, and personal areas) needs to be steeped in-- and never at the expense of-- our core stable, reliable and strong religious foundation and beliefs.
Moshe’s Final Speech
In Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, who views this week’s parsha as the last of four speeches that comprise the Book of Devarim, raises a number of issues:
• The speech seems superfluous in rebuking the Israelites, since that has already been done in earlier speeches.
• Why is Moshe talking to the people as if they left Egypt, when in fact this generation is the offspring of the Israelites who experienced the Exodus?
• Why does Moshe raise the subject of the people’s future return to the land after being exiled when the nation has not yet even entered the land?
• Why explain at this particular point that observance of the Torah is not as hard as it seems?
Rabbi Leibtag’s analysis focuses on the centrality of the idea of Covenant (bris).Moshe tells the people that now that they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land, they must fulfill the destiny of their parents. To this end, he creates a Mt Sinai-like scenario in which they can feel as if they were there at Sinai. Moshe reaffirms the relevance of the Covenant, reminding the nation that because their destiny is to be God’s nation, severe punishment awaits anyone who backs out. God, too, will keep up His part of the Covenant, promising that even if the nation sins, when they repent they will then be returned from exile to the Promised Land and resume their place as His nation. Anticipating the possible fear that theirs is an impossible task, Moshe reassures them that the way of life demanded by the Torah is well within their capability and reach.
A seven-time recurrence of the verb “return”, in points to the key underlying theme of this Parsha—T’shuva (from the Hebrew root meaning “return”) which is defined as a transformational process that leads to our regeneration and rebirth. Like the snake that sheds its skin and gains almost a new identity, the person who does T’shuva sheds his old self and is spared from the punishment that was to be inflicted on the old self that no longer exists.
If we as a nation grasp the lesson of history and decide to return to God in word and deed, He will turn to us, gather us, ”circumcise our stuffed up hearts” and help each of us transform ourselves into “new,” better people. The idea of circumcision links to the bris performed by Avraham avenu on his son Isaac, at which time God promised His everlasting Covenant for creation of an Israelite nation with our own land.
God promises us that He will cut away (circumcise) the layers of rationalization, cynicism, apathy and laziness that block us from experiencing the essential goodness that exists deep inside each of us. Excision of this negativity permits us to tap into our deep emotions of devotion/faith/ethical behavior/love.
In beautiful, poetic language the Torah describes that no matter how far away we are, literally and emotionally, we have the ability to return to God (i.e., do T’shuva). The initial stages of the T’shuva process are, in the words of Rav Kook (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) purifying and refining ourselves as we move first toward God, then to the higher stage of onto God, being one with Him. This two stage process is seen in the subtlety of the text where initially the Torah’s words are “…And you return upto the Lord your God…” then later the terminology is”…If/when you return unto the Lord your God.”
The inner struggle that is T’shuva consists of…
• Thinking about one’s past actions
• Verbally confessing/expressing regret
• Committing not for repeat this behavior in the future.
The ultimate test is how one behaves when confronted with a repeat of a situation.
The “three Rs” of the T’shuva regeneration process are:
• Remorse (to be verbalized)
• Returning wholeheartedly
The predominant themes of the month of Elul are T’shuva and God’s Love. The Lubavitch Rebbe sees the words “to love God your God with all your heart” as reflecting His deep-rooted love for the Jewish people which we are called upon to reciprocate. Only a lover can demand that the object of his love reciprocate those feelings.
It is good to feel love and be loved. These positive feelings build our confidence and prepare us to tackle the difficult, painful introspection that is the start of the T’shuva process of reconciling with both God and Man.
“You Must Choose Life, So That You and Your Descendants Will Survive”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that, unlike surrounding cultures, the Torah is concerned more with life than with death. The explicit statements regarding death after life and the resurrection of the dead are almost completely absent from Tanach. Despite their importance they are only hinted at in the Written Word. Although some observers have argued that mortality is one of the key forces driving living and civilization, the Torah’s view of death is that it is a source of tumah (ritual impurity). This negativity and the view that the dead are not to be worshiped were revolutionary ideas in ancient cultures like Egypt.
Instead of focusing on death in the closing days of his life, Moshe the great leader and teacher focuses on the nation’s Covenant with God. One can achieve immortality by being part of this Covenant, argues Rabbi Sacks, because living by being part of the Covenant means that parents and grandparents live within us and that we live on in our progeny. It is for this reason that Moshe emphasizes that the Covenant exists even for “…those not with us today [i.e., children and grandchildren] ” and “ it is precisely because Judaism focuses on this world, not the next, that it is the most child-centered of all the great religions”.
The Hakhel ceremony (in parshat vayelech) is a renewal of the Covenant every seven years so that it does not become an outdated and irrelevant piece of ancient history. The commandment for one to write a Sefer Torah for oneself (Rambam) is a way of creating ownership of faith and becoming an integral and eternal part of an eternal God.
At the moment of his own mortality Moshe is telling us that we each need to confront our own mortality and reminding us that, unlike most civilizations known to history, our faith is about finding God in life, about experiencing God in love and joy. God is here and now; there is no need to climb to heaven or to cross the sea or to wait to die to encounter Him.
Saw You at Sinai
According to a Midrash, every Jewish soul of every generation was at the momentous, nation-creating Mt. Sinai experience. I think this is a way of expressing the idea that each of us has a shared destiny. Every generation has the potential to experience that moment through mitzvahs. For example, the Ramban notes that the Mishkan that travelled with the Israelites during their desert resembled a “traveling Mt. Sinai” in that the Israelites…
Were encamped around the Mishkan
Saw the fire and smoke of the offerings
Were taught Torah by Moshe
The new generation of Israelites about to enter the Holy Land was not present at Mt. Sinai. But it was their--and our--responsibility to fulfill the destiny planned for their parents’ generation of…
• Living by the Torah and its ethics
• Creating a personal relationship with God
• Becoming a nation that properly represents God and His ethics to the nations of the world
“Secret things belong to God…but regarding revealed things it is for us and our children to forever do all the provisions of this [Torah] teaching”
“Even when your outcasts are dispersed to the ends of the world, [eventually] God will gather you…and bring you to the land which your fathers occupied”
“…surely this instruction…is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach…it is not in the heaven…neither is it beyond the sea…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to observe it”
“And God will ‘circumcise’ your heart and the heart of your children (enabling you) to love God your God with all your heart and all your soul…”
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse .Choose life!”