רב בנג' לוי

Rav Benjy Levy
Dean of Jewish Life & Learning of Moriah College in Sydney

Parshat Nitzavim begins with a grandiose declaration by Moshe on the final day of his life uniting ‘heads of tribes, elders, officers, men, children, women and converts… from woodchoppers to water carriers’ – all Jews, past and present, under a renewed relationship as one nation.[1] This new covenant emphasizes the important dictum that ‘all Jews are responsible for one another.’[2] The Parsha continues with a warning against the dangers of idolatry and the redemption stage of Israel as a nation, what Ramban indicates is a prophecy for the future.[3] The Jewish people are to ‘return unto Hashem, listen to everything He commands’[4] and serve Him wholeheartedly.

The Parsha then offers a seemingly enigmatic statement, ‘If your dispersed ones shall be at the ends of the heavens, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you and from there He will take you. And Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land that your forefathers inherited and you shall inherit it, and He will do good for you…’[5] Why will Hashem gather individuals from the holiest of places – the heavens? Surely the ingathering of the Jews to Israel shall take place from more depressing locations? Rav Saadya Gaon answers that this is a metaphor[6] – but for what?

The Torah paints a picture of a people that albeit in exile, will live very holy lives – and, historically, this is very accurate. Throughout history, a strata of the Jewish population have created for themselves insular communities of piety. This allowed for a scholarly building stage of a nation – a national education period – creating a university or yeshiva epoch of investment in self. However, Yeshiva should never be the personal end stage – it is rather but a learning phase for a later application. The permanent version of this idyllic personal period is what the Torah refers to as the ‘world to come’ or heaven, but it is by no means the ideal in this life.

Our role is to transform the entire world, not just our own, into heaven. In our private and historical lives, we may retreat and create a heavenly realm so that we can invest in ourselves but this is so that later we can invest in the rest of the world. Also, sometimes people get stuck in this archetypal existence. Therefore, perhaps the pasuk is saying that G-d will gather the people ‘from the ends of the Heavens…’ and bring them back ‘to the land’ as an attempt to bring them back down to reality.

The text is referring explicitly to the land of Israel and, by bringing them down, G-d forces the nation to deal with the nitty-gritty planting of seeds and building of a state. There is a kabalistic tradition that each passuk in the Torah alludes to a specific year in world history and it is, therefore, uncanny that this passuk is number 5708 (1948 in the secular calendar) – the year that the state of Israel was established. In light of this, it is highly significant that this passuk is invoked in the prayer for the State of Israel.

In the wake of the latest ‘Yeshiva’’ period, where many elite Jews locked themselves in the ghettos of Eastern Europe and penned incredible Jewish literature, G-d has now brought us to the land, urging us to build an organic Jewish community. This period is the first time in 2000 years that we have been afforded such an opportunity. Israel is ultimately meant to be built into a beacon for the world that other nations will be inspired in saying, ‘surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’[7] However, in order to realise this imperative, people need to realise their responsibility for one another and work in the here and now. Each person in his own way has a role to play and a thread to sew in our national fabric, to build this great nation into what it can become.

This message applies, however, beyond the borders of Israel. Before we are born, the Talmud says that we learn Torah and our potential while in our mothers’ womb.[8] After life, we move onto what is meant to be an idyllic existence – heaven. Life is bookended by these two blissful realms but our parsha says clearly that the Torah ‘is not in the Heavens’.[9] It is meant to be not only studied but implemented constantly in this world, to shape every facet of regular life.

Individually and communally, some build a spiritual cocoon in an attempt to re-enter the untainted existence of pre (womb) and post (the world to come) life. In a sense, this is admirable as they search for purity. However, the ‘impure’ world they have fenced out urgently needs them. Between the womb and the tomb, the Torah demands that ultimate living means the courage to take risks. The story of the State of Israel, the return of a nation to its transcendental ancestral Home, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable odds, proves this. In venturing beyond ourselves, we may be susceptible to failure and, in spite of this, it is incumbent upon us to consciously make the right decisions. As the Parsha ends, rather than living in any other realm, it is upon us to ‘choose life so that you may live!’[10]

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[1] Devarim29:9,10.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shavout 39a.

[3]Ramban on Devarim 30:1.

[4]Devarim 30:2.

[5]Devarim 30:4-5.

[6] Rasag on Devarim 30:4

[7]Devarim 4:6.

[8]Niddah 30b.

[9]Devarim 30:12.

[10] Devarim 30:19.