Moving Forward Meaningfully

Nitzavim Vayeilekh | Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 28, 2013 / 5773 | Holidays

The parashiyot of Nitzavim–Vayeilekh are intimately woven into the rhythm of the liturgical year as they are typically read either immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah or during the intervening Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Indeed, the very opening of this section, with its devotion to the Covenant and returning to God, are rooted deeply in the essence of the High Holidays:

Surely, this commandment 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. (Deut. 30:11–14)

Having drifted from the path of God and the mitzvot, we are encouraged to rediscover and rebuild relationships—with God and with our fellow humans. Yet, how does one begin a process of teshuvah, returning—especially when such an endeavor seems counter to human nature?

Parashat Nitzavim anticipates our sense of trepidation with regard to this sacred act. Deuteronomy 30:11 declares that “this commandment . . . is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” Though many commentators understand this verse and section to refer to the entirety of Torah, Nahmanides reads it differently. He argues that this excerpt refers very specifically to the mitzvah of repentance: “The expression used here refers not to the entirety of Torah but specifically to the mitzvah of repentance which immediately precedes this verse. It is stated in a future tense to suggest, in the form of a pledge, that it is destined that Israel will repent.” Even though one may think that it is far beyond one’s ability, teshuvah is within reach.

Ramban’s commentary is sharp, encouraging each and every one of us to reconsider the possibility of change in our lives. Too often, we crave rootedness and stability in our lives. A. J. Heschel laments that such a tendency leads to a spiritual death; we refuse to acknowledge that hayyei olam nata betokheinu, “eternal life has been planted in each of us.” Our Torah readings this week bind together the opposites: nitzavim means “rootedness,” while va-yeilekh denotes “moving.” Ironically, in order to move forward with integrity, we must be rooted. May this coming season of the High Holidays be a time for, at once, rooting ourselves more deeply in Judaism, and moving forward toward more intimate and meaningful relationships with God and our fellow humans.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.