Torah Thoughts for Today
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of NITZAVIM – VAYEILECH

Constancy and Change: The Torah Remains Relevant

By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Director www.jpi.org | Weekly Torah Portion of NITZAVIM – VAYEILECH.

This week’s double Torah portion Nitzavim – Vayeilech is in the Book of Deuteronomy (29:9 – 31:30).

The two names of this doubled-up parsha denote polar opposites: The word “nitzavim” means “standing” (“You are all standing before the Lord your God…”) with the nation assembled, while the word “vayeilech” means “[and (he)] went” (And Moses went and spoke the following words to all Israel…” — “Standing” means to stand still, literally like a “pillar” i.e. “netziv” which is the root Hebrew word of “nitzavim” the plural of “netziv” meaning “[many people] standing”, in this case all the Israelites “assembled” before Moses and God and it is a stationary state. While the word “vayeilech” translates as “he went” i.e. Moses “went about” the business of telling the Children of Israel the words of God as Moses nears the end of his life and the Torah nears its closure. The classical commentaries (as cited by Rabbi Aryeh Kapan in The Living Torah) say that Moses was in a mobile state as he literally “went” to each of the Twelve Tribes, to each individual tent, to the Israelite camp, to the study halls. Moses took the initiative and went to the Israelites instead of assembling them.

The root of the word “vayeilech” is “lech” meaning “to go” and is also the source for the word “Halacha” the name for “Jewish Law” but which translates literally as “the way to go” implying “the path to follow” for Jews who wish to “follow” in the “way” and “path” of the Torah.

This is one of the great paradoxes and mysteries of the Torah: That on the one hand it seems to be “rooted” and “stationary” while on the other hand it is also something that “moves” and even “changes” as long as it remains true to itself and its commandments are not violated. This is a notion that is hard to grasp and it often stumps people in BOTH directions. While some think or act like that the Torah is unchangeable (which it is, but one must understand how that works and why that is so), the Karaites only believed in the written Torah and refused to accept what the Oral Law taught, others act on the assumption that the Torah is an endless ongoing piece of putty and wet clay that never dries allowing anyone who comes along to “change” and “modify” it to suit the times or to support some sort of new set of beliefs. Thus Christianity and Islam, while on the one hand drawing from Judaism’s constancy, try to impose a new set of changes that runs counter to what the Torah wants JEWS to practice and believe. There are many more examples of this in modern times as well: Reactionaries justify their actions based on the Torah while extreme radicals will do the same, as if the polar opposites of radicals and reactionaries had the same source book but came out with opposite conclusions. This is something that has puzzled me as it may also have bothered you, and if you dwell on it, it may even induce a “shut-down” and you just walk away from this seeming intellectual confusion.

Yet the amazing thing is that by simply looking at the clear words in this week’s double parsha some of the above “mystery” of constancy versus change is “solved” if one is willing to accept that the Torah is meant for all generations, whether in the times of Moses or for any generations that follow until our own times, into the future. In fact this final part of the Torah is nothing but a “final prophecy” for the end of days, and each generation after that of Moses and the Children of Israel has had the potential of being the “final generation” of the “end of days” and it is only known to God just which generation will be the true final one.

The subject matter of the parsha speaks for itself and it is incredible to see in plain words that the Torah is somehow capable of speaking to a generation over 3,300 years ago yet still be addressed to us today, not to mention all the intervening generations that could have applied these words to themselves. (From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah translation):

“(From NITZAVIM:) “…It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant…I am making it both with those who are standing here with us…and with those who are not [yet] here with us today…A future generation, consisting of your descendants, who rise up after you…shall see the punishment directed against that land…All the nations will ask, ‘Why did God do this…What was the reason for this great display of anger?’...They shall answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant’…There among the nations where God will have banished you, you will reflect on the situation…God your Lord will once again gather you from among all the nations…God your lord will then bring you to the land that your ancestors occupied, and you too will occupy it. God will be good to you and make you flourish even more than your ancestors…This mandate {mitzvah) is not too mysterious or remote from you….It is something that is very close to you…(From VAYEILECH:) God your Lord will be the One who will go across before you. It is He who will destroy these nations before you…Be strong and brave. Do not be afraid…He will not fail you or forsake you…God said to Moses, ‘…this nation shall rise up and stray…They will abandon Me and violate the covenant…I will hide my face from them…they will say, It is because my God is no longer with me that these evils have befallen us.’...[God also] gave Joshua orders, saying, ‘Be strong and brave, since you will bring the Israelites to the land that I promised them, and I will be with you.’ Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll…Moses then gave orders…‘Even while I am here alive with you, you are rebelling against God. What will you do after I am dead?...I know that after I die, you will become corrupt…You will eventually be beset with evil, since you will have done evil in God’s eyes, angering Him with the work of your hands.’”

How bitter-sweet this all sounds! The yin and yang of present realities versus futuristic predictions and events is almost maddening. Yet with the words and predictions of “tough love” also come words, actually prophecies, of hope, triumph and redemption. No matter how many changes and challenges history will bring and no matter how many personal, sociological, cultural and even pseudo-spiritual changes and onslaughts will be attempted, for all sorts of reasons, yet nevertheless, there is one constant result that will always come through, that not just the words of the Torah but its commandments and God’s plans for all of Creation and God’s love for the Jewish People in particular will always remain and grow.

Shabbat Shalom! 

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