Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Overview of Parshat Netzavim
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 [something we are witnessing now]
Power of Repentance. But Man must take the first step.
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 Lubavitcher Rebbe cites Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s opinion that Netzavim and Vayeilech 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” no matter one’s social standing.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
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, who notes that this week’s parsha contains the last of four speeches that comprise the Book of Devarim, raises some 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 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.
The Torah warns that when the Israelites serve other gods, “God’s fury raged against them, bringing upon it the entire curse written in this book. God uprooted them from their land with fury, anger and great wrath, and He cast them to another land (where they are) until this day”. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reasons that “Apparently God wants Canaan to be the one place in the world consecrated exclusively to monotheism”. The special Land of Israel must be an idolatry-free zone.
Rabbi Marc Angel defines idolatry as “the attribution of false value to an object”. Idolaters convince themselves that falsehood is truth and so worship, bow down to and bring food to an inanimate piece of wood or metal. The evil of idolatry is: believing in falsehood, abandoning truth.”
Many Torah commandments relate to the avoidance of pagan, idolatrous behavior. In modern times idolatry manifests itself in some delusional “religious” practices and in beliefs of disciplines to be considered god or god-like. These include…
Child sacrifice in the name of Allah (suicide bombers)
Unrelenting worship and pursuit of money
Especially in our world today, we need to be on guard constantly not be seduced by the demagogues and public relations professionals and politicians who ask us to believe things we know to be unnecessary, wrong or plain outright lies. Rabbi Angel concludes that “The Torah commands us to cling to truth, to reject lies”.
Moshe explains that discovering truth is not in the heavens or so far away that it requires someone bringing it to us. No. Truth and beauty are readily accessible. “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it”. Despite this, notes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Jews have long had a tendency to fall in love with people who don’t love them and pursue almost any spiritual path so long as it is not their own.” We have enriched other cultures more than our own. Although that has changed to some degree in both Israel and the Diaspora, the deepest roots of spirituality come from within.
Judaism has no need for cathedrals or monasteries. We believe that “God is the God of everyone and everywhere, Who has time for each of us and Who meets us where we are, if we are willing to open our soul to Him.” Rabbi Sacks understands the meaning of Moshe’s extraordinary words, “It is not up in heaven …nor is it beyond the sea,” as follows: “Kinderlech, your parents trembled when they heard the voice of God at Sinai. They were overwhelmed. They said: If we hear any more we will die. So, God found ways in which you could meet Him without being overwhelmed. Yes, He is creator, sovereign, supreme power, first cause, mover of the planets and the stars. But He is also parent, partner, lover, friend. He is Shekhinah, from ‘shakhen’, meaning, the neighbour next door”.
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 reservoir of positive emotions, devotion/faith/ethical behavior/love.
In beautiful, poetic language the Torah describes that no matter how far away we are, literally and emotionally, we can 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) first purifying and refining ourselves as we move toward God, then moving 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 Lubavitcher Rebbe perceives 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 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 absented 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. He is 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. 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”. Perhaps the meaning is that we should not waste our time and energy in the futile pursuit of trying to understand God, because He is hidden and, by definition, unfathomable. The “revealed things” refers to life in the real world. To cope with life’s internal and external challenges we need to adhere to the ethics of the Torah as embodied in the Mitzvas.
Rabbi J.H. Hertz explains that there are limits to what a mortal being can know. This is one of the fifteen verses in the Torah in which some words have dots over them (לנו ולבנינו ע) probably “to call attention to important homiletical teachings in connection with the words thus dotted”.
“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!”. We are free agents to choose good or evil. One’s sphere of individual conduct is largely of one’s making. Heredity and environment may limit but in the sphere of morality one is his own master.
Overview of Parshat Vayeilech
Contains two positive mitzvahs
Preparation for new leadership under Yehoshua
Hakhel public reading of the Torah ceremony every seven years on the second day of the first Succoth holiday after completion of the seven-year Shemitah cycle
Moshe is told about the events after his death
God’s testimony for the future
Moshe’s Torah scroll is placed with the Ark
Gathering of the Elders to hear the song of Ha’azinu
Repetition of the word hayom (today) may be emphasizing that every day is a new beginning and an opportunity to change for the better
The Shemita year has just ended. On the first Succoth after the people of Israel will experience the Hakhel ceremony.
"At the end of each seven years, at a fixed time on the festival of SUKOT, after the year of release, when all Israel comes to present themselves before God, your Lord, in the place that He will choose, you must read (from) this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it.
You must gather together (Hakhel) the people, the men, women, children and proselytes from your settlements, and let them hear it. They will thus learn to be in awe of God, your Lord, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know, will listen and learn to be in awe of God, your Lord, as long as you live in the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy."
Rambam describes the Hakhel ceremony as follows:
"How is the public reading conducted? Clarion calls are sounded throughout Jerusalem to assemble the people. A large wooden dais is brought and set up at the centre of the Women's Court in the Sanctuary. The king sits upon this dais so that all may hear his reading. All pilgrims will stand around him. The overseer of the government will hand the Torah over to the presiding officer, who passes it on to the deputy high priest. This one will turn it over to the high priest, who will tender it to the king. This gesture expresses obeisance to the king in front of the multitude. Now the king rises and accepts the Torah standing. He opens the scroll, looks for the beginning of (the Book of) Devarim, then pronounces the customary benediction prior to public reading from the Torah. Then he will read out the prescribed selections, concluding with seven special benedictions."
The prescribed sections to be read are:
• From the beginning of Devarim until the end of Sh’ma Yisroel (Devarim 6:9)
• The entire second section of Sh’ma Yisroel beginning with "V’haya im shamoa”
• From the beginning of "Asayr T’asyr” through the entire section on the blessings and curses in Parshat Ki Savo
In the absence of a King in Israel, the public reading is to be conducted by the highest ranking national official like the High Priest or the President of the Sanhedrin (judiciary). The special concluding benedictions are:
• "Ata B’chartanu" ("You chose us from all the nations ...")
• "Modim Anachnu Lach" ("We bow to You ..." or “We are grateful to You”)
• "R’Tzay" ("Accept favorably ...")
• A prayer for the continued existence of the Temple concluding with "... who resides in Zion"
• A prayer for the continuation of the Kingship in Israel concluding with "... who chooses Israel"
• A blessing that the priests' service should be found favorable
• A private prayer that concludes with "... save your nation Israel that needs salvation. Blessed art Thou, Hashem, who listens to prayers."
Rav B.S, Jacobson surveys some of the ideas related to the Hakhel ceremony:
Flavius Josephus maintains that the purpose of the Mitzvah is to provide an impressive public admonition for the entire nation. The public recitation of the Torah and its laws educates people about the consequences of their failure to adhere to the appropriate religious behavior. No one can claim ignorance as a basis for non-observance. The ceremony takes place as the Israelites prepared to journey home to resume their agricultural life.
Aharon Halevy, the thirteenth century author of Sefer Hachinuch sees in this ceremony a national reunion to…
• Hear Torah words
• Create a greater national awareness of the Torah laws
• Foster a greater appreciation and affection for Torah values
…as is stated in the text "... that they may hear and fear... and observe."
Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) thinks that the pomp and circumstance is meant to inspire every individual to devote his leisure time-- both the weekly Shabbat day and the septennial Shabbat year of Shemita -- to the study of and reflection on the Torah. [Ibn Ezra maintains that the ceremony takes place at the beginning of the Shemita year.]
Stu Zellner reasons that the experience will create a bonding and unifying experience for the nation as people stream in to Jerusalem from all parts of the world. At the same time, it will demonstrate the individuality of each person in terms of differing religious practices, clothing, foods, manner of speaking and dress.
Even young children are obligated to attend. According to the Talmud, men assemble to learn, the women assemble to hear while the little ones come "in the interest of those who bring them"(i.e., an additional Mitzvah for the parents). Ramban (1194-1270) thinks the obligation is for children who are old enough to be impressed by the awesome experience and to study the Torah. This experience will prompt questions—the key to their education (“K’day Sheyishalu Hatinokos”— “so that the children shall ask”). The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds that this is a mitzvah that “arouses and strengthens the inner faith of a Jew—and in this area men, women and children is equal”.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag thinks that the Hakhel ceremony was meant to be a re-living of the Mt. Sinai experience that took place some forty years earlier. Because most of the Israelites were not present at Sinai, they needed to undergo a Mt. Sinai-like experience as they stood ready to enter the Land of Israel and fulfill the destiny of their parents’ generation. Their parents gathered together at Sinai to hear the words of God and learn to fear Him. Their generation (and future generations) assembled at Hakhel for the same reason. Just as there were korbanot offered at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were busy offering extensive korbanot during the Succoth festival. Rabbi Leibtag finds similar key words and phrases used at both Mt. Sinai and Hakhel. The location of the Mitzvah of Hakhel here, near the end of the Torah, serves as a reminder for all future generations of the awesome experience at Mt. Sinai and its eternal meaning.
Rav Dovid Hoffman observes that the Hakhel ceremony takes place after the crop-less shemita year when lands lay fallow (“vast wasteland”?) just like the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai in the barren Sinai desert.
Hakhel is the earliest reference to the commandment of public Torah reading. Tradition attributes to Moshe the reading on Shabbat, festivals and Rosh Chodesh. Ezra the Scribe extended public reading to Shabbat afternoons and to Monday and Thursday mornings so that no more than two full days can pass without people hearing the words of the Torah.
The first Hakhel took place 22 years after the Israelites entered the land of Israel (in the 13th century BCE). The Israelites gathered in the city of Shiloh, then home to the Tabernacle, where Joshua read the prescribed Hakhel reading. The Shemitah cycle did not begin until after the Jews completely conquered and divided the land—a process that lasted fourteen years. The Hakhel gatherings continued as long as the Jews resided in the Holy Land.
In 1945, the Yeshurun Central Synagogue in Yerushalayim conducted the first modern Hakhel ceremony, reviving a custom that lay dormant for nearly 2000 years. Hakhel since has become an established tradition for Chief Rabbis and civic leaders in the State of Israel. On Tishrei 18, 5769/October 17, 2008 the Hakhel ceremony was performed on the Temple Mount.
The Jewish people may have entered the post-Shemitah year dejected and full of despair with no crops and no money. Perhaps the Hakhel ceremony with its reading of God’s promise of better times ahead helped lift the peoples’ spirit so that they could celebrate the remainder of the holiday as commanded, “you shall rejoice on your holiday”.
Two Mitzvahs in the Parsha
They are the Hakhel assembly and the commandment of writing a Torah scroll. Both were given on the day of Moshe’s passing. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that because the Israelites were about to embark on their entry into the Promised Land without their leader Moshe it became critically important to enable the nation to recreate the experience at Sinai.
Rambam writes that the Hakhel ceremony was to be “like the day it was given on Sinai…and he was hearing it from the mouth of the Almighty”. The writing of the Torah scroll was designed to recreate the experience of being given the Torah personally by God “because when a person writes one with his own hand, it is as if he received it from Mt. Sinai”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the need for writing a scroll is for us to take ownership of the Torah and to re-learn it and re-live it anew in every generation in the context of its time. Though an ancient document, the Torah speaks to us here and now. But this can only happen if we put ourselves into it and it into ourselves.
The source for this mitzvah is “Now write for yourselves this song”. We are creatures of emotion. To have its impact, the Torah must sing to us; it must speak to our emotions. Rabbi Sacks notes the close association between music and spirituality.
Song and singing are critical parts of the Jewish experience. Instead of praying we daven, singing our words heavenward. We don’t just read the Torah. We chant it, with each word having its own cantillation. In studying the Talmud, we chant the words in a sing-song manner. There are different cantillations for different Biblical textual readings.
Rabbi Sacks quotes Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein (author of the Aruch Hashulchan) who explains that the reason that the Torah is compared to a song is because the most beautiful musical sound is choral, incorporating harmony with many different voices singing different notes. So it is with the Torah with its wide range of commentaries with their differing understandings [“seventy faces”] that together create a soaring polyphony (i.e., a musical composition that uses simultaneous, largely independent, melodies, lines or voices). Moshe’s life ends with urging us to rediscover the Torah every generation “writing our own scroll, adding our own commentaries, reinterpreting the book of the people…singing its song”. [Note: some scholars think that “this song” does not refer to the Torah but to the epic poem-song Ha'azenu, next week’s Parsha.]
A Happy Ending
Why is it, asks Rabbi David Fohrman, that rather than letting Moshe die in peace as his death approaches, God tortures him with His prediction of the sad things that will happen after his death. After Moshe had worked so hard to build and mold the nation it appears that all his efforts were in vain. God tells Moshe that in the future, the Israelites will:
• Stray after other indigenous gods
• Desecrate His covenant with them
In response, God will…
• Become enraged
• Abandon them
• Hide His face
• Make them vulnerable to their enemies
• Bring terrible things upon them
Rabbi Fohrman concludes that what is happening here is that God is communicating that so long as he is still alive there is something that Moshe can do to influence the nation. When the nation sins in the future, God will ignore the nation’s attempt at t’shuva because they may not be sincere in their efforts. They may claim that the source of their woes is “because God is not within us” instead of looking within and realizing that it is their abandoning God that triggered His rage.
“Now therefore, compose a song for you and teach it to the children of Israel…” God commands Moshe to compose Haazinu, the epic poem that retells Jewish history and provides a glimpse into its future. It describes in detail how God the Designer of the universe is also the architect of the nation of Israel. He is our father and our creator and would obviously never pull back from us unless we pulled back first.
Moshe will be remembered as the author of this poem that directly refutes the people’s expected claim. When they read and hear it they will be reminded of Moshe and what he did to urge them to sincerely repent.