Choose Life and Torah
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. Four passages in Parashat Nitzavim seem to me especially crucial to Moses’s teaching and our response.
First, the opening words are distinguished by remarkable inclusivity (Deut. 29:9–14). “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God”—whether rich or poor, men or women, old or young, high or low in the social order, even “the stranger within your camp.” Everyone is part of the “you” with whom the “Lord your God” is entering into covenant. What is more, the pact includes those present “this day”, as well as members of generations to follow, and of generations past, who are not present; those standing near and those far away. Anyone who hears Moses’s voice is included in the group invited to take on the responsibilities of covenant.
I feel directly addressed in these remarks. Moses’s words reach you and me, in the 21st century, thanks to all the Children of Israel who have maintained the covenant, and taught and lived Torah in whatever form, over the centuries separating us from Moses. In the same way, Jews two thousand years from now will be able to hear Moses’s voice and keep faith with the covenant in ways we cannot possibly imagine today, because we accept Moses’s charge here and now. The Torah will speak to them as it speaks to us—as Moses spoke to those Israelites at the Jordan River. At every point, it will speak “this day.”
The second element of Moses’s speech, essential to the Torah’s immediacy in every generation, is his utter humility in the face of the Mystery in which God abides. Moses does not pretend—the Torah does not pretend—to know much about God’s nature, history, or ultimate intent. Why did God give Torah to Israel and not others? Why at Sinai and not centuries earlier? What are God’s plans for Israel and the rest of humanity? Why does evil persist in the face of a good God who cares about God’s creatures? What fate awaits us in the world to come and the world in times to come? Moses fends off such fundamental human questions with the declaration (Deut. 29:29) 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.”
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. And we have one another, partners on the way, communities that offer support, fulfillment, and love. This is a lot—and will have to be enough.
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” (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” (30:11–14).
Moses tests the credibility of his audience here, insisting that although God’s demands are difficult to fulfill, they are by no means out of reach. We are commanded to infuse God’s words into daily life, bring them down from the mountain, practice justice, act with compassion, and do this not just in our private lives but in the streets. Politics and society, foreign policy and business, must be in accordance with God’s instructions, as interpreted by the Prophets and Sages. The law must be equal in complexity to the situations it orders. The task is difficult, very difficult, and rarely mastered. And yet Moses insists that there is an alignment between the regiment of mitzvah and our natures. What God demands and promises is not beyond the realm of possibility. Far from it. “The davar—the thing, the word—is very close to you.” Otherwise, he seems to say, there would be no chance that we would heed it.
I find this teaching increasingly powerful as I look back from the vantage of some experience on a life that has had its highs and its lows, achievements as well as failings, good decisions made after careful consideration of the alternatives and bits of good fortune and sheer dumb luck that more than once saved me from the consequences of what I thought was careful consideration. Moses, on the verge of death, as his people prepares to encounter possibilities of which he cannot even dream, speaks to the human condition as I have come to know it many centuries after him. He addresses the human person, of whatever faith, as he or she considers what sort of person to be—and whether it is time to alter course and change.
Follow the path of Torah, Moses urges. It is made for human beings, not for angels. It is a given that individuals, like groups, will inevitably stray from the path and wander. It is also a given that there is more than one path, more than one way to love and be kind—and if we stray, we can return. God offers second chances, at least some of the time. Individuals and communities extend forgiveness to one another.
Maimonides, in his Laws of Teshuvah (Repentance), urges us not to doubt that we human beings have the capacity to choose good over evil. He cites as his proof text the final passage from Parashat Nitzavim, which I greatly treasure: the essence of the essence of the teaching Moses wants all of Israel to hear and act on, in every generation. “See, I set before you this day life and good, death and evil . . . I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—so that you and your children after you will live” (Deut. 30:15,19). Moses is aware that much remains beyond our control of individuals. We have to play the cards we are dealt, as they say. We cannot change the past. But there is so much we can change, so much we do control, and in that immense space of possibility—like a Land beyond a narrow river—lies the chance for a life well lived, a person who receives and bestows blessing, a community that practices goodness and mitigates suffering.
This is the assurance that the Sages wanted us to hear as we approach the High Holy Days. They made sure we would read Parashat Nitzavim each year right before Rosh Hashanah. May its teaching work for us as the Sages hoped it would, persuading us to recommit ourselves to the choice for blessing, goodness, and life itself.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.