Torah Is in the World and People Must Seize It



Nitzavim-Vayelek, Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

In Nitzavim-Vayelek, the people gather together as Moses prepares to pass his leadership position on to Joshua. The Torah lists the different parts of society that are present: from the highest tribal leaders to strangers, from women and children to woodchoppers and water drawers. This extensive list implies the inclusion of the entire society. The people gather to enter into the covenant with God. The covenant is for those standing there physically, and for those who are not standing there.

This moment, at the verge of finishing the journey in the desert, recalls an earlier moment of affirming the covenant at the beginning of the journey. In June, at Shavuot, we celebrated the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, reading from Exodus 19 in synagogue. In the description in Exodus, Moses alone is allowed to ascend the mountain to receive the Torah. The people remain at the foot of the mountain obscured by lightning and a dense cloud, made threatening by the sound of thunder. The Torah is mitigated through Moses.

In this portion, as Moses prepares to depart from the people and from this world, there is a democratization of spiritual life and relationship to God. Not only is the whole society entered into the covenant, but Moses also reminds the people that the mitzvot they are committing to are not beyond their reach.

"It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?' " Moses is telling the people that he will no longer be there to bring the Torah down. It is already down, and they must seize hold of it. It is in the hands of the people, and they are equal to the task of observing it.

How appropriate, that in the month of Elul, we read a portion that invites each and every one of us to enter the covenant again. Tradition has it that everyone stood at Mt. Sinai — the people who were actually there and all the Jews yet to be born. But we stood at the foot. The gathering described in Netzavim, which also seems to encompass those who were there and future Jews, invites us to step more solidly into the center of the covenantal relationship. Moses says of the mitzvot and the Torah "the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."

At Shavuot, we received Torah for the first time and carried it with us throughout the desert, but it dwelled in the Tent of Meeting and we were still unfamiliar with it. In Elul, as we each prepare to personally return to our true relationship with ourselves and God, the Torah is inside us, empowering us and acting through us.

Moses turns his leadership over not just to Joshua, but to every person who gathers on that day, preparing to enter the Land. The new society will be built not by a charismatic leader and a law that hovers above the people. It will be built by citizens who take the responsibility for following that law into their own hands, bodies and hearts.

This is the time in our own lives to draw the Torah down into us. There is no thunder and lightning here. Nothing is hidden. The portion also reminds us: "Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children to ever apply all the provision of this Torah." We are the actors who are called to make the Torah our own through our actions in the coming year.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]


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