Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Torah Reviews its Memories

As people age realize they are nearing the end of their lives, they begin to engage in a process called life review. Life review is different for each person and involves a progressive return to memories of our life, actions and the people we’ve encountered. Or, in Jewish speak, it’s our psyche helping us do the work that will enable us to reach a point where we feel like we’ve done enough teshuva so that we can move on to the next stage in peace. 

This week’s Torah reading Nitzavim- Vayeilech, found near the end of the Torah, is comprised of two parshioyot which are read together as a single unit. This particular double parsha has always struck me as a sort of life review for the Torah, strange as that may seem. The work of the five books has been to get us ready to be an independent, moral people ready to enter the Promised Land. Here we are, a couple weeks before we complete our Torah cycle, prepared to enter. 

 It all comes back to the names of the Torah portions themselves. Simply put, Nitzavim means to stand and Vayeilech means “and he walked or he went.” Two words with polar opposite meanings that are supposed to harmonize into one joint meaning. Let’s take a closer look. 

Nitzavim is a rarely used word for standing (as in “you stand”) as opposed to the more commonly used word Omdim. According to various sources Nitzavim connotes not merely standing but also making oneself available to the exchange of ideas or taking a stand for something you believe in. 

Nitzavim I will associate with Moshe. Why Moshe? The parsha begins “Atem Nitzavem Hayom kulchem” You all stand this day. What is hayom/this day? Moshe’s final day, the day of his death. The whole book of Deuteronomy has been Moshe’s final goodbye, his life review of all that has happened since he answered God’s call to set the People Israel free from slavery, help them accept the Torah and ultimately take them to the edge of the River Jordan. 

I read Moshe’s use of the word nitzavim almost as a plea to this group of people who can be as recalcitrant as they can be accepting. Don’t just stand here, but engage, listen, be prepared to entrench, take a stand! `

Vayeilech, and he walked, I associate with Avraham and the famous scene in Parshat Lech Lecha: God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen 12:1).  The word Vayeilech echoes Abraham as he answers God’s call to leave all that he has ever known to go to an unknown place and begin a new future. A new future of which, through Moshe, you and I have become the recipients.  

Life review.   The Torah is reminding itself and us that the story began with one person being asked to Lech/Go and ultimately make a covenant with God not only for himself but also for his family, then and in future. 

It ends with one person standing and asking others to stand/take a stand/nitzavim at that moment for themselves and also for  “him that is not here with us this day” (Deut 29:14).

What are the messages of Nitzavim- Vayeilech?  Two opposites can form one single unit. Take a stand in order to move to the next level.  Walk into the unknown in order to listen well and know what is worth believing in.  All are instructive messages with which to begin our review of this past year and begin planning for the new year.

The Virtues and Zeal of Rehabilitation

Numbers 8:1-12:16

This week’s parsha begins in a rather mundane way, with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron how to kindle the lamps of the Menorah. The next verse is the one that really interests me. “Aaron did so; he kindled the lamps at the front of the Menorah, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Numbers 8:3) Why did the Torah include this verse? What is so special about Aaron carrying out this fairly ordinary command that it warrants its own rather repetitive sentence? 

Rashi interprets the phrase “Aaron did so” to say that this shows Aaron’s virtue in that he did not deviate from God’s command in the performance of a mitzvah, even one which Moses instructed him to do in the name of God.  Rashi is known for interpreting Torah verses in the pshat, the simplest or face value sense of the words. It makes sense that Aaron would follow God’s command and, as Moses relayed God’s commands to Aaron the majority of the time, it also makes sense that he would follow commandments relayed by Moses. At this point I am not sure where the sense of Aaron’s virtue comes into play, especially since it was not too long ago that we experienced the incident of the Golden Calf.  Perhaps Rashi is aiding in the process of the rehabilitation of Aaron’s character.  

I found two other explanations that resonated. The first is from Or HaChaim, a 17th century Moroccan rabbi and Torah commentator. He wrote that for Aaron to light the Menorah he would have to clean the lamps of Menorah each day. In order to clean and properly prepare the lamps, he would have to remove them, clean them, and reassemble them. In essence, Aaron would be performing the mitzvah of building a new Menorah each and every day.  By stating, “Aaron did so” in the verse, we receive confirmation that Aaron took on the obligation of fulfilling this important mitzvah each day and also obligated his children, the future Cohanim, to fulfilling it as well.  

This explanation satisfies my sense of academic inquiry (and fits with my theory of character rehabilitation), but I needed a different explanation to fulfill my sense of personal curiosity. I found it in a commentary by the Vilna Gaon, a famed rabbinic scholar in the 18th century, expounding on Rashi’s comment that Aaron’s following the instructions was a virtue. He said that Rashi’s point was that not only did Aaron never deviate from the precise instructions but, and here is the part that caught my interest, he never varied in his enthusiasm for this same commandment in all the years that he kindled the Menorah in the Tabernacle. The passion, zeal, and commitment that he felt the first time he completed the act stayed with him each and every time he completed this mitzvah.

The simple words “Aaron did so” now take on a whole new meaning. They teach us that we too can make a mistake and be rehabilitated. They teach us that we can strive to perform a task, even something that seems fairly bland like kindling lights, with passion and commitment, each and every time we conduct the act. The lesson that we learn from these seemingly innocuous words is potent - our commitment to an act need not diminish over time if we have the proper kavannah (intention) as we perform it.

We’ve recently celebrated Shavuot and received the Torah. Who knows what we can accomplish if we truly put our hearts, minds and souls into becoming partners with the Creator in balancing the world?

Food for thought:

Is there anything that you do on a regular basis that you resent that could be elevated if you changed your attitude toward it?