Rabbi David Ackerman
Anyone who has ever given a speech, taught a class, written a book, essay, or script, competed in an athletic event or performed in a show, has heard the admonition to “finish strong.” Moses and the author(s) of the book of Deuteronomy heed that call and in grand fashion. Quite fitting for the last Shabbat of 5783.
The strong finish that is Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh articulates themes that are central to the Torah’s overall message and, it turns out, deeply relevant to the current moment.
Nitzavim begins with a summoning of the entire people to a renewal of the covenant (brit) between God and Israel. Atem nitzavim kul’khem hayom — “You are stationed today, all of you, before the presence of YHWH your God …”
Who exactly is kul’khem — all of you?
The Torah spells it out: “Your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, your sojourner who is amid your encampments, from your woodchopper to your water hauler …”
The 19th-century Chasidic master, R Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitza [Mei haShiloah, Nitzavim], comments that the 10 groups mentioned in Deuteronomy correspond to 10 levels of spiritual awareness, “five opposite five, all of them as one, constituting Israel.”
In similar fashion, the 13th-century Zohar [2:82a] likens these 10 groups to the Ten Commandments and the 10 sefirot (emanations/manifestations) of Divinity. For the mystical tradition, God = Torah = Israel. Not only are we as a people connected always and forever to one another; we the people are inextricably tied to Torah and God as well.
That’s what kul’khem — all of you — really means!
So where do we encounter the Torah which is part and parcel of our unity as a people?
Here’s our parshah’s answer:
“For the commandment that I command you today: it is not too extraordinary for you, it is not too far away! It is not in the heavens, [for you] to say: Who will go up for us to the heavens and get it for us and have us hear it, that we may observe it? And it is not across the sea, [for you] to say: Who will cross for us, across the sea, and get it for us and have us hear it, that we may observe it? Rather, near to you is the word, exceedingly, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it!” [Deuteronomy 30:11-14]
R Abraham ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century commentator, adds: she’kol ha-mitzvot ‘ikkaram ha-lev — “the heart is the essence of all the commandments!” The wholeness that is God, Torah, Israel is actually within each of us! As the window signs advertising available jobs have long put it: Help Wanted? Inquire Within! It’s on us, each of us, to seek out Torah and God; and we get to do it via awareness and mindfulness. Look within, teaches the Torah, for the heart is the essence.
Can inwardness alone be the whole answer? What about our tradition’s emphasis on outward behavior? Parshat Vayelekh delivers the punch line:
“But now, write yourselves down this song; teach it to the Children of Israel, put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be for you as a witness against the Children of Israel.” [Deuteronomy 31:19]
This song is the Torah itself, God’s ongoing gift to the people of Israel. Says Deuteronomy, it’s to be written down, sung and taught to the next generation. The obligation to write a Torah derives from this verse. And Maimonides’ formulation of the law adds a powerful extra layer: “Even if a person’s ancestors left her/him a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah to write one oneself.” Every generation writes its own Torah; every generation sings its own song.
The year ends with a provocative and poignant triple message: There is a grand unifying entity called God, Torah, Israel that each of us is part of; the best way to access that unity is to inquire within; once encountered, sing it from the rooftops, write it, teach it, pass it on to the next generation.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
David Ackerman serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am Israel and as co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.