Thursday, August 29, 2002
It's Thursday, which means I'm supposed to talk about the parshah of the week. But I just got back from a friend's son's bris (circumcision), and I haven't had a chance this week to do much studying. So I'm going to keep it short.
This week's parshah is a double: Nitzavim (parshiot are named for the first substantial word of the parshah; this week's first line is "Today all of you are standing before the Lord your G-d" - Nitzavim means "standing"), and Vayelech (which means, "and he went"). Nitzavim is Moses' summation of the essence of G-d's moral message; Vayelech relates the passing of his authority to Joshua, the establishment of the Masoret, the tradition, that stretches from Moses through Joshua down to the present day. If President George Bush has a favorite parshah, it's probably Nitzavim. Here are the key lines; you'll quickly see why:
For this commandment that I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, and it is not far away. It is not in the heavens that one might say, "who can ascend for us to the heavens and take it for us, that we may hear it, and do it." And it is not across the sea that one might say, "who can cross the sea for us and take it for us, that we may hear it, and do it." For this thing is very close to you, in your mouths and in your hearts, that you may do it. See, I have placed before you this day life and good, death and evil. . . I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse - choose therefore life, that you may live, you and your descendants. [D'varim 30:11-15, 19]
This is the core of Judaism, it seems to me. There is good and there is evil. Good is life, and blessing; evil is a curse, and death. We have a choice between them. The choice is not always easy, but it is usually simple. And the choice we should make is clear.
I'm not going to tie little insights about these parshiot together in a pretty bundle (perhaps I think how to do it tomorrow, in which case I'll edit this). For now, I'm going to point to two midrashim that are meaningful to me:
(1) Why does Nitzavim begin with that first line - why does it begin with Moses telling the people that they are standing before G-d today? I mean, to begin with, the people are not in any particular sense standing before G-d on that day; they are no longer at Sinai, but now stand at the entrance to the Land of Israel. An Aggadic explanation cited by Rashi is: after the prior chapter's horrible curses, the people wondered, who could withstand these horrors? So Moses begins this discourse saying: you who rebelled so frequently in the desert and provoked G-d to anger, see, you are standing today before the Lord your G-d. Rashi goes on further to explain that the "day" referred to is not this particular day but the "day" that encompasses eternity - i.e. not only the daylight, but the 24-hour day that includes the night (the periods of suffering); in both periods, into eternity, you stand before the Lord your G-d.
(2) Before Moses hands authority to Joshua, he tells the people that he is going to his death, and not to enter the Land with them. And he takes Joshua with him into the tent where he received revelations from G-d during the time in the desert, and the pillar of cloud descends as usual. And there is a Midrash describing Moses' behavior when Joshua assumes authority that I have always found touching. In the Midrash, Moses is quite reluctant to die, and asks G-d to be able to continue, only subordinate to Joshua, the new leader. And G-d relents. So Joshua sits down to teach Torah, and Moses sits at his right hand and participates in the discussion. And then Joshua enters the tent to receive the divine revelation, and when he emerges Moses asks him what G-d told him. And Joshua replies: all through the desert, did I ever ask you what G-d told you in the tent? Then Moses says to G-d: let me die, for I would rather die than commit such a grievous sin as to be envious of Joshua's position.
It's a beautiful two parshiot; read 'em.