Sunday, September 12, 2004

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choosing Judaism in Torah times, the joys of quote-hunting, and more

“You are standing here this day, all of you, before HaShem your G-d—your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger/foreigner who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water—in order to enter into the covenant of HaShem your G-d and into His oath that HaShem your G-d makes with you this day.” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verses 9-11) Once upon a time, a non-Jew could become Jewish through association. But Ezra and Nechemiah seem to have found a problem with that, so the rabbis later developed rules for conversion. Now we’re fighting about who’s a Jew (or, to be precise, who’s a rabbi.) Sometimes I think Jewish unity would be a lot easier to maintain if we’d stuck to the earlier tradition.

“For this commandment that I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, and it is not too far away. Lo va-shamayim hi . . . it is not in heaven . . .” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verses 11-12) It may be hard to be a Jew, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it’s not impossible.

“Hanistarot laShem kelokénu, v’haniglot lanu u-l’vanénu ad olam, la-asot et kol divré hatorah hazot. The secret things belong to HaShem our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verse 28) One of the things I love to do when reading the chumash (“Five-Books-of-Moses-plus-haftarot” book) is to figure out where in the siddur/prayer book a quote is mentioned, or whence a quote found in the siddur originated in the chumash. I know I’ve heard this quote in the Yamim Noraim/High Holiday services somewhere, but I can’t remember where. I’ll be looking and listening for it in a few days.  [Found it!]

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; u-vacharta ba-chaim therefore choose life . . . “ (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19) Hertz, in his chumash, comments, “Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility . . . “ (page 882). I’m not traditional enough to believe that I’ll live longer if I obey halachah/Jewish law, but, on the other hand, I think taking Jewish tradition seriously and taking responsibility for my actions both help me add meaning to whatever lifespan I have.

In Vayéléch, Moshe/Moses tells the people Israel that he’s 120 years old and can’t get around as well as he used to. (Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 2) Being a bit of a skeptic, I’ve always felt that Moshe died of old age rather than because he was being punished for disobeying HaShem.

I may be a skeptic, but Moshe was a cynic: According to Vayéléch, he just assumed that the Jewish people will continue to be the stiff-necked sinners and backsliders that they were while they were under his leadership. After all the grief we gave him, I can’t say I blame him. On the other hand, with the Yamim Noraim coming up, perhaps we should give Moshe the kavod/honor/respect of trying to become better than that.


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