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.
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
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 (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” no matter one’s social standing.
Parshas 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 views this week’s parsha as the last of four speeches that comprise the Book of Devarim, raises several issues:
• The speech seems superfluous in rebuking the Israelites, since that had 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.
“You Are Standing ‘Hayom’ (this day) …”
On the surface, these opening words of the Parsha refer to the day that Moshe was speaking to the Israelites as they readied themselves to enter the Promised Land. Martin Buber taught that to understand Torah, one needs to focus on those words and phrases that are repeated in the text (“Leitwort”, leading word) that may appear in the guise of different forms of a Hebrew root. In this week’s Parsha the word “hayom” (today) appears some twelve times even when it does not seem necessary. Biblical scholar Professor Everett Fox notes that the excessive repetition feels like it “protests too much”. Some have suggested that the word “hayom” in the text not only indicates the actual moment of the event but also encompasses “all the audiences’ ‘today’ wherever that may be, independent of the time and place presented in Devarim”.
Professor Fox concludes that the experience of hearing the repeated “hayoms” in this week’s parsha “in essence transforms the text’s later audiences into Moses’s addressees…it is difficult to be present at the reciting of these words without feeling somehow addressed.” There are other verses in the Torah that deal with God’s Covenant and contain the word “hayom.” The Sages’ interpretation is that they, too, refer to all generations, “seeking to connect the generations and bind them together in a common destiny.”
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 concludes 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”, 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 on his son Yitzchak, 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 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) 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 up-to the Lord your God…” then later the terminology is” …If/when you return un-to the Lord your God.”
The inner struggle that is T’shuva consists of…
• Thinking about one’s past actions
• Verbally confessing/expressing regret
• Committing to not 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 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 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”.
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. Each of us has a shared destiny. Every generation has the potential to experience that moment through mitzvahs. For example, the Ramban explains 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 lives by God and represents 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 it is futile to try 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 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!” Heredity and environment mold our development and our conduct. Even so, in whatever amount of free will the individual is granted, he/she is a free agent to choose good or evil behavior.