Nitsavim: The hardest quest

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond 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?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Devarim 11-16

We’ve conjured up the stuff of dreams:

we’ve walked in space and seen the heavens
radiant with galaxies of stars,

we’ve plumbed the depths beneath the waves,
and walked the ocean floor,

we’ve charted lands beyond the sea, and
marveled at the glory of Your world, yet

we struggle with the hardest quest –
to walk the path illumined by Your light.


Parashat Nitsavim contains Moses’ third discourse which he imparts to the people as he approaches his own death. It is a summons to ratify the covenant between God and the people, and is always read close to Rosh Hashanah, which is a time for taking stock of our commitment to the covenant with God.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2014, http://www.jtsa.edu/choose-life-and-torah, Professor Arnold Eisen addresses this discourse. He says, “It would be difficult to think of a Torah portion that speaks with greater urgency than this one. The Israelites are about to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Moses is about to die, at God’s command, on the wilderness side of the river. He needs to sum up the teaching to which he has devoted his life in a manner that is persuasive, indeed unforgettable, for the people will not get to hear from him directly again, and the teaching is not meant for his generation alone. The Torah wants to speak to Children of Israel in every time and place, in a way that leads them — leads us — to carry forward the project that Moses has directed. It succeeds in that effort: we too are stirred by Moses’s language, compelled by his vision, moved to undertake responsibility for his Torah.” Professor Eisen notes that four passages in Parashat Nitsavim seem to him especially crucial to Moses’s teaching and our response.
First, the opening words are addressed to the entire community. Absolutely everyone is included, both from that time and throughout all coming generations. Implicit is the assurance that the Torah will be relevant in every time and place.
Secondly, Moses says that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, while revealed things belong to us and our children forever, to do all the things/words of this Torah.” (Devarim 29:29). Prof Eisen comments, “We must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never know much of what we would dearly like to know. But — the Torah insists — we do know enough to live in this world, to do good, to make things better. We have God’s Torah and the tradition built upon it over the generations. We have the promise of God’s justice and compassion, and are occasionally vouchsafed moments in God’s presence. We have abundant gifts of human culture and society: arts and sciences, experience and wisdom…”
He continues, “As if in response to the protest, “But it is so hard! Hard to know what is right, and harder still to do it!,” Moses attempts reassurance. When the people stray from the path, God will “take you back in love” ([Devarim] 30:3). The task he sets for them is not beyond their capabilities. “This Instruction [mitzvah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” It is not in the heavens, or beyond the sea. “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” ([Devarim] 30:11–14). Finally, Moses emphasizes that although God’s mitzvot – commandments may not be easy to keep, they are within our reach. We are to bring them into every aspect of our daily life. Moses seems to be saying that the “word” is very close to us otherwise we would not be able to access it. He encourages the people to walk in the way of Torah.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2011, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=7229, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen too addresses this second-to-last speech by Moses to the people, before he dies and they enter the land. Rabbi Cohen notes that as Moses departs, his role as mediator is taken away also. Rabbi Cohen says, “It is no longer necessary for somebody to go up to heaven (not once, but twice) to bring the Torah down. It is no longer necessary for there to be one person who mediates the word of God for the people. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
He notes that a frequently-cited Talmudic tradition understands this verse to mean that once the Torah was revealed at Sinai, it was transferred from the heavenly realm to the human one, and thus, interpreting and understanding it became the responsibility of humans. He adds, “God is no longer a voice in the debate. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
Rabbi Cohen continues that there is another view that appears in the Midrash (Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael, Bachodesh 9) and holds that “Israel merited prophecy because they refused to hear the voice of God directly at Sinai, and begged Moses to be the intermediary.” (Shemot 20:19). When Moses retells the story of the Revelation at Sinai he adds God’s response to the people’s request not to hear God’s voice. “The Lord heard the plea that you made to me and the Lord said to me, I have heard the plea thsat this people made to you ; they did well to speak thus.” (Devarim 5:25) The Midrash sees this as an endorsement of having a mediator. However, Rabbi Cohen suggests that Moses’ statement in this week’s portion, does not seem to clarify the question of approval or disapproval of mediation. He says, “The point of Moses’ statement is that you cannot rely on the fact that there might be somebody else to get the Torah and teach it to you, or for you. You must get it, study it and teach it. There is no longer an excuse. The fear that Israel had at Sinai of hearing the voice of God, cannot now be avoided – for the voice of God is what happens when Torah is studied. God is in the space between the student and her text, between teacher and student, between student and study partner.
“When Moses finishes speaking, he immediately writes “the words of this Torah on a scroll, in their entirety.” He then entrusts them to the Levites to carry with the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah is now text, and inert unless studied. This is the obligation of freedom, and the criteria for membership in the community: being involved in the ongoing dialogue of Torah study. For those who take up the challenge – it is theirs; for those who don’t-it remains beyond the ocean and above the Heavens.”
Rabbi Cohen concludes with a thought by the Sefat Emet, who teaches that Moses broke the tablets of stone only when he saw the golden calf, as he realised that the people were not yet ready to receive them. Had they done so then, they would have worshiped the tablets like an idol. So Rabbi Cohen suggests “When Torah is static it is an idol: inaccessible, beyond the heavens, and for all intents and purposes, mute. When Torah is studied, and therefore dynamic, it is close at hand and alive. It is the word of God.”

In her book The Five Books of Miriam, a Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel relates the Yiddish folklore story of Skotsl. Dr Frankl reminds us that when Moses is preparing to die, he assures the people that the Torah is neither in the heavens nor across the sea but “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart. ([Devarim] 30:14). She asks “Is that still true? For isn’t it also written “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us” (30:12)? What are we supposed to do now that we no longer have a superhuman champion like Moses to intercede with God on our behalf?”
And she answers, “Once upon a time, there lived in Russia a community of women who reached just such a point of despair when the Russian army came and marched off all their men. Because the women themselves had no direct access to the Torah, neither to its words nor to the performance of many of its mitzvot , their Jewish lives came to a standstill. There were no men to perform a bris (ritual circumcision), slaughter kosher meat, lead prayers, read from the Torah, or conduct a funeral. Finally, a young woman, named Skotsl, suggested that they build a human ladder to heaven and ask God what to do. Because it was her idea, Skotsl was elected to be their spokeswoman.
“But just as Skotsl reached the top of the wobbling tower, the woman at the bottom sneezed, and the whole pillar of women collapsed. After they had picked themselves up and made sure no bones were broken, they looked around for Skotsl – but she was nowhere to be found. And since that day she has never been seen again. Did she reach heaven and become stranded there? Or did she fall to earth somewhere so distant that she could not find her sway back home? Or did she die in the fall?
“To this day, when some Jewish women greet each other, they announce, “Skotsl kumt!” – hoping that at last Skotsl has returned with answers from heaven and beyond the sea.”

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