Nitzavim/Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

A Life Lesson: Choose Life

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells the Jewish people that He placed before them life and death. God then implores them to:

“…choose life, so that you will live…” (Deuteronomy, 30:19)

It’s obvious that if one chooses life, then he or she will live, and if one chooses death, then he’ll die. But our physical life and death wasn’t what God was referring to. We all know that, except for the rare few who are mentally ill, no one proactively chooses physical suicide. However, all of us – yes, ALL of us – commit spiritual and emotional suicide every day.

Just like God says, we all have before us the option to choose life or to choose death. Again, not in the physical sense, but rather in the spiritual and emotional sense.

From the moment our alarm clock goes off in the morning there is life and death before us. You see, when you went to sleep the night before you did so with perfect clarity that you wanted to wake up early and “hit the ground running.” You decided to choose life. But when the alarm clock goes off, you then immediately come up with powerful and compelling reasons to stay right in bed. And as you sleepily smack the snooze alarm you’ve chosen death. When the body’s desires win over the soul’s desire, death wins. If the soul wins, then life is chosen.

While it might sound harsh to call seven minutes more of extra sleep death, it’s exactly what God was referring to. We can only have life when we make soul choices and do what’s hard and right over body choices which are easy and wrong. The fact is, if you had a plane to catch for an exciting vacation, you would spring out of bed and wouldn’t come up with even one good reason to stay there.

There’s not a better or more satisfying feeling one can have than making good choices. If you’re able to pass on an unnecessary second portion of cake, you choose life. Gobbling it down is choosing death. If you do what’s hard by making an unexpected call to thank someone who helped you in the past, this is choosing life. Talking yourself out of it is choosing death. Running on your treadmill that you haven’t used in months is choosing life. Using it as a coat rack is choosing death. Giving your time and money to those who need it is choosing life. Passing on this same opportunity is choosing death.

Basically, anything that takes effort and is hard to do, but makes you feel on the top of the world when you do it, is choosing life. But choosing death is easy. Not growing or challenging yourself is easy. Anyone can do that. And most of us do.

We choose death all day long. And we wonder why we’re lifeless, unmotivated, discontent, and lacking all zest for living. This is because we’re really not living. Instead, we’re choosing death by distracting ourselves and killing ourselves one poor decision at a time.

Use the strength you know you have to start choosing life. God couldn’t tell us to do this unless He also gave us the ability to fight the body and let the soul win.

We’re ALL designed for greatness. We’re designed for life. Make the right choices and you’ll feel richer than you can ever imagine. Like God said, “… choose life, so that you will live.” Choose life and you’ll know what living really is.

Nitzavim, Nitsavim, Nitzabim, Netzavim, or Nesabim (נִצָּבִים — Hebrew for “ones standing,” the second word, and the first distinctive word, in the parashah) is the 51st weekly Torah portion (פָּרָשָׁה, parashah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the eighth in the book of Deuteronomy. It constitutes Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20.

Jews generally read it in September or, rarely, early October, on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. The lunisolar Hebrew calendar contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying between 50 in common years and 54 or 55 in leap years. In some leap years (for example, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2025), Parashah Nitzavim is read separately. In common years (for example, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2024, 2026, and 2027), Parashah Nitzavim is combined with the next parashah, Vayelech, to help achieve the number of weekly readings needed. The two Torah portions are combined except when two Sabbaths fall between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot and neither Sabbath coincides with a Holy Day. In the standard Reform prayerbook for the High Holy Days (מחזור, machzor), parts of the parashah, Deuteronomy 29:9–14 and 30:11–20, are the Torah readings for the morning Yom Kippur service, in lieu of the traditional reading of Leviticus 16.

In the parashah, Moses told the Israelites that all the people stood before God to enter into the covenant, violation of which would bring on every curse, but if they returned to God and heeded God’s commandments, then God would take them back in love and bring them together again from the ends of the world. Moses taught that this Instruction was not beyond reach, and Moses put before the Israelites life and death, blessing and curse, and exhorted them to choose life by loving God and heeding the commandments.

Vayelech, Vayeilech, VaYelech, Va-yelech, Vayelekh, Va-yelekh, or Vayeleh (וַיֵּלֶךְ — Hebrew for “then he went out”, the first word in the parashah) is the 52nd weekly Torah portion (פָּרָשָׁה, parashah) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the ninth in the book of Deuteronomy. It constitutes Deuteronomy 31:1–30. With just 30 verses, it has the fewest verses of any parashah, although not the fewest words or letters. (Parashah V’Zot HaBerachah has fewer letters and words.)

Jews generally read it in September or early October. The lunisolar Hebrew calendar contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying between 50 in common years and 54 or 55 in leap years. In some leap years (for example, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2025), Parashah Vayelech is read separately. In common years (for example, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2024, 2026, and 2027), Parashah Vayelech is combined with the previous parashah, Nitzavim, to help achieve the number of weekly readings needed, and the combined portion is then read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. The two Torah portions are combined except when two Sabbaths fall between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot and neither Sabbath coincides with a Holy Day.

In the parashah, Moses tells the Israelites to be strong and courageous, as God and Joshua would soon lead them into the Promised Land. Moses commanded the Israelites to read the law to all the people every seven years. God told Moses that his death was approaching, that the people would break the covenant, and that God would thus hide God’s face from them, so Moses should therefore write a song to serve as a witness for God against the Israelites.

Vayelech/Nitzavim in a Nutshell:

The Parshah of Nitzavim includes some of the most fundamental principles of the Jewish faith:

The unity of Israel: “You stand today, all of you, before the L‑rd your G‑d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer.”

The future redemption: Moses warns of the exile and desolation of the Land that will result if Israel abandons G‑d’s laws, but then he prophesies that in the end, “You will return to the L‑rd your G‑d . . . If your outcasts shall be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the L‑rd your G‑d gather you . . . and bring you into the Land which your fathers have possessed.”

The practicality of Torah: “For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Freedom of choice: “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.”

The Parshah of Vayelech (“and he went”) recounts the events of Moses’ last day of earthly life. “I am one hundred and twenty years old today,” he says to the people, “and I can no longer go forth and come in.” He transfers the leadership to Joshua, and writes (or concludes writing) the Torah in a scroll which he entrusts to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

The mitzvah of Hakhel (“gather”) is given: every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot of the first year of the shemittah cycle, the entire people of Israel—men, women and children—should gather at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the king should read to them from the Torah.

Vayelech concludes with the prediction that the people of Israel will turn away from their covenant with G‑d, causing Him to hide His face from them, but also with the promise that the words of the Torah “shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.”

Overview: Genuine Growth by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow of Cong Beth Tefilah, Canada

On the first day of school, hoping to impress the class with his experience, my brother’s teacher listed the many schools where he had taught over the previous decade. One boy, duly impressed, but not quite in the way the teacher had hoped, wondered, “Why were you fired so many times?”

It is always difficult to determine just how many previous employments should be listed on a resume or in a job interview. Listing too many places conveys sophistication and experience, but also, a lack of permanence and loyalty. Listing too few places conveys a sense of steady dependability, but also, a lack of versatility and flexibility.

Indeed, this is the very question we ponder when we consider changing our location or place of employment. Moving around prevents us from laying down roots and building upon previous successes. Staying in one place can result in missed opportunities.

How do we balance these two important, but contradictory considerations?

The name of a Torah reading often reflects the general theme of the portion. The Hebrew names of the two parshahs that are read this week are Nitzavim and Vayelech. Nitzavim means to stand firmly. Vayelech means to move forward.

The general theme of the first Torah portion is stationary permanence; to remain firmly committed to one vocation or calling. The general theme of the second Torah portion is forward momentum; to constantly move forward and explore new possibilities.

At first glance the two seem contradictory, yet as we probe the inner meaning of these concepts we discover that they are, in truth, complimentary.

In analyzing the two names we notice the order in which they are arrayed. First, Nitzavim; we commit ourselves to our original position. Only then, firmly rooted in our original state, do we permit ourselves to Vayelech–move forward and seek out new possibilities.

We must always ask ourselves why we seek new opportunities. Is it because we are generally malcontent, unable to remain in one place for long? Or have we maximized our full potential in this area and are seeking further room for growth? The latter is an acceptable reason to relocate, the former is not.

Only when we have maximized our potential in our current location is it appropriate to move forward. At that point, remaining stationary can cause stagnancy and complacency.

When we move into a new community and lay down roots with intention to remain, we naturally reach out to form new friendships and associations. When our stay is intended as temporary, we tend not to form deep bonds. “Why form bonds,” we ask ourselves, “if they are unlikely to last?”

Indeed, when Moses declared that the nation stood firmly before G-d, he pointed out that they stood together. Leaders and princes stood alongside children, proselytes, wood-hewers and water-carriers.

A good way to measure the extent of our commitment to a community is to gauge our friendships within that community.

If you entered the community with a migratory mindset, then you would not have developed genuine relationships with those around you. If you have developed genuine friendships, chances are that you have fully engaged your community. If you need to move forward at this point, it is not for a lack of trying to make it work.

What can you do if you realize that you never did lay down firm roots in your community or place of employment and never really tried to make it work? Must you force yourself to stay even when your heart wants to leave?

We do, of course, have freedom of choice and may choose to leave; however, there are other options to consider. We might consider remaining in place and satisfying our desire for mobility by introducing new and innovative ideas to our existing framework.

This too is implied by the juxtaposition of the two Torah portions. It is possible to achieve the enthusiasm and momentum of mobility (“Vayelech”) even when we remain stationary (“Nitzavim”). New horizons are not always found in new locations or places of employment. It is often possible to remain in our current position and find a novel approach that would stimulate us anew.

As we approach the High Holidays we would do well to incorporate these ideas into our preparation for the new year. We resolved at the end of last year to improve in certain mitzvot. But, as we look back, we realize that we did not live up to those expectations and we wonder how to approach the coming year.

Should we dispense with last year’s resolutions and try different resolutions this year? or should we recommit ourselves to last year’s resolutions and pursue them till we succeed?

The proper approach is a combination of both. We must strengthen our resolve from last year and work to improve in those areas. At the same time, in an effort to generate new enthusiasm, we must also try our hand on new resolutions.

May we succeed in our resolutions and may we be granted a healthy and good new year.