By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week, we read a double Parshiot (NITZAVIRIM-VAYELECH). After hearing the list of 98 terrifying curses, at the end of last week’s Torah Parsha (KI TAVO), the people were devastated, and questioned whether they could possibly withstand such frightful punishments.
Moses responded with the opening statement of Parsha (NITZAVIM): “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God; the leaders of your tribes; your elders; and, every man of Israel” (1). At this moment God establishes the covenant: “But not only with you am I making this covenant and oath, but with those standing here with us, before the Lord, your God and, also with those of future generations” (2).
What follows is a continuation of the punishments which will befall any individual, or family, who strays from the Lord to worship deities of other nations. “This commandment is not concealed from you, nor is it far away; rather, it is very close to you – – in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it” (3).
Near the end of this first Parsha of the week (NITZAVIM), Moses repeats to the children of Israel, God’s words: “I have provided you with a choice: Life or Death…you shall choose Life” (4). Hillel taught that to choose ‘life’, should be interpreted as to enjoy all of God’s gifts in the company of your society. “Do not separate yourself from the pleasures of involvement with your community; if I am only for myself, who am I?” (5).
The second Parsha for the week (VAYELECH) is both heartrending, as well as inspirational. It begins with Moses speaking the following words to the Children of Israel: “Today, I am one hundred and twenty years old; and, I have been told by the Lord that I will not cross the Jordan with you, to reach the ‘Promised Land’, which you have inherited” (6). Moses will no longer lead the people. After his death, Joshua will assume the mantle of leadership.
Before he takes his leave of life, God instructs Moses to implement the last of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, for himself… and, through him, for future generations. He is told to write a ‘song’, and teach it to the Children of Israel. According to our sages, the word ‘song’ is a metaphor for ‘Torah’, because we chant the words of the Torah, as opposed to reading (7). Every Israelite is to write…or, at least take part in writing – – -even, if just a single letter – — a Torah scroll (8).
The six hundred and thirteenth (and final) commandment is not simply about the Torah; but, the symbolism that the Torah must live anew with each generation.
“The Torah is God’s song; and, collectively we are its singers” (9).
(1) DEUTERONOMY (29:19)
(2) DEUTERONOMY (29:13-14)
(3) DEUTERONOMY (30:19)
(4) DEUTERONOMY (30:19)
(5) Hillel (Avot 2:4)
(6) DEUTERONOMY (31: 14, 19)
(7) Mishna Torah (Chapter 6)
(8) Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah (7:1)
(9) Rabbi Yachiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) Russian Empire, “Laying the Table for the future”