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By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

Parshat Nitzavim

In my work and community conversations these days, I hear many people express despair about the state of our world.


“Nothing I can do will make a difference,” says one friend.

“I wake up in dread every day,” says a client.

“I don’t know where to start — I’m just one person,” says a neighbor.

It is true; there are challenges before us that can feel overwhelming. It is easy to feel overcome by the gap between our time, energy, abilities and the scope of the world’s woes, whether we are thinking about global warming, the worldwide refugee crisis or the persistence of poverty, to name a few.

In this context, the Torah’s words can offer encouragement and solace. In Parshat Nitzavim, the people of Israel are given a last-minute review of their covenant with God before they part with Moses and enter the Promised Land. This covenant, they are told, was made, not just with all of those who were physically present at Mount Sinai, but with all of the future generations of the Jewish people.

“I do not forge this covenant only with you, but with those who are standing here today before the Eternal our God, and with those who are not standing with us today” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

We are assured that we will falter and fail, but we will ultimately turn toward God. When we do, God will turn toward us, as well.

“You will return to the Eternal your God … with all your heart and all your soul. And the Eternal your God will return you from captivity and have compassion upon you” (30:2-3).

As if to answer the unasked question — how can we ever fulfill all of our sacred obligations — the text continues, “For this commandment which I give you today is not too wondrous for you, nor too remote from you. It is not in heaven, lest you say, who will ascend to bring it to us so that we may hear it and do it, nor across the sea, lest you say, who will cross over and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it. Rather, it is very near indeed, in your mouth, and in your heart that you may do it” (30:11-14).

The rabbis debate about the meaning of “this commandment.” Is this teaching about a particular commandment (e.g., turning in repentance), or is it about every commandment? The Torah offers us a message of empowerment regarding all of our obligations. The commandments are ours to do, and fulfilling our holy obligations is within our capacity.

This issue was relevant when I served as a rabbi for a congregation of frail elders in a long-term care setting. These people longed to fully participate in Jewish observance, but they had significant limitations — physical and cognitive.

I studied pertinent Halacha (Jewish law) and learned that our obligations are actually sliding scale. If we are limited in our capacity to fulfill a mitzvah, we are obligated to do as much as we can.

For example, if we cannot stand and recite the entire 19-blessing Amidah that makes up the heart of our Jewish worship services, we can sit; if we cannot say the entire prayer, we can say an abridged version; if we cannot speak the words, we can meditate on them. In each case, we are considered to have fully fulfilled our obligation.

So how does this teaching relate to those of us who feel beleaguered by the scope of the brokenness all around us?

We learn that we are, indeed, obligated to make a difference. We learn as well, though, that we are bound to do what we can. We are called to find the actions that are within our grasp to repair our community, our nation and our world.

We must start here, start now, and do what we can, as Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” 

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman offers pastoral care for frail elders and their caregivers and spiritual direction for people beyond midlife through Growing Older, her Philadelphia-based, national practice. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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