Monday, September 3, 2007

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30

A D'var Torah from Richard M. Morin (A dear friend and wonderful Jewish educator from Nashville, TN)

One of the hermeneutic principles in studying Jewish texts is called semuchim, "contiguity." This means that a greater meaning can be derived and inferred by having two texts or important principles next to each other rather than having them stand alone. So it is especially meaningful at this High Holiday time that Nitzavim and Vayelech are read together as a single parashah.
These two major themes independently are important but together are revolutionary! The key word of Nitzavim, like the old song by The Byrds, is turn, in Hebrew, teshuvah. We are faced several times with turning: a turn of our heart, a return unto God, God's turning of captivity into compassion, God's turning and gathering us, God's turning to rejoice over us.

Our early commentators Rashi and Nachmanides viewed God's demand for turning, for teshuvah, to be God's major commandment to us in this parashah: "For this commandment which I command you this day" is the command to return, teshuvah.

The second independent yet profoundly complementary lesson of our double portion is found initially in Nitzavim and then underscored in Vayelech. We learn that God wants us to "turn" in our thinking, to return to God, but God does not make this command too difficult or too distant from our personal understanding.

As the text says, "It is not in the heavens -- neither is it beyond the sea--'" (Deut. 30:12, 13) This commandment is very close. It is in our hearts and mouths, our life experience. In Vayelech, the second part of our double lesson, we find out who "our" is. In Deuteronomy 31, we read that it is not just an ordinary gathering of people who must be collected to hear God's word. When the Jewish historian Josephus reported on this commandment, he provided an important insight: Neither woman nor child, nor slaves nor aliens should be excluded from the assemblage to hear the recitation of the commandment. That women, children, slaves, and aliens should be part of this gathering is not usual.

Therefore, the teaching of the commandments, that is Jewish education, should not be the concern of only the priests, rabbis, or educators. The commandments are meant to be the everlasting possession of the entire people-yesterday, today, and tomorrow. These two Torah portions strike the keynote of the educational and spiritual democracy established by Moses. The Torah is the heritage of all Israel.

Among the basics of Jewish learning is the alef bet. I have been attending Shabbat Sing at my son's preschool. I love hearing the kids sing the same Alef Bet song that I listened to as a child many, many moons ago. Lisa Rauchwerger recognizes the importance of the building blocks of a Jewish education with her poster and paper sculpture.

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