Commentary for Nitzavim-Vayeilech

19 Sep

In our modern society, religion often provokes questions. “What does this ritual mean?” “Why do we doing things the way that we do?” “Why do we believe the things we believe?”  For Judaism, this is nothing new. The Torah predicts these types of questions in reference to the paschal sacrifice in Ex. 12:26 (“And when your children shall ask you, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’”), and the Hagadah actively encourages them, using them as an important part of the process of passing on the tradition.


When we come across a verse of scripture or a midrash or a ritual that inspires a question, we are taught by both our religion and our modern society to try our best to find an answer. With a religion as old and complex as Judaism, finding an answer can be extremely difficult.


Ever since the time of Abraham, Jewish law has been expanding and evolving. God gave Abraham a few commandments to pass on to his descendants. Then, at Mount Sinai, the Israelites received the rest of the 613 mitzvot. Along with these Moses received many explanations of the law, and the whole package was passed down to Joshua, to the tribal elders, to the Prophets, and to the Great Assembly, before finally being written down by the Rabbis. The Rabbis asked further questions and wrote further commentary and explanations, and over the next few hundred years, the Talmud was developed. This was further explained and commented on by the Ge’onim, whose work was built upon by the Rishonim, whose own work was built upon by the Acharonim, and the modern Rabbis of today. New generations encounter new problems, and thus new questions are asked and new responsa are needed. New commentaries are published, all written on the shoulders of giants, but each influenced by their own contemporary societies. There is the Shulchan Aruch, the Sefat Emet, the Levush Malchut, the Mishnah Berurah, the Mishneh Torah; Rashi, Solomon Schechter, Nachmanides, the Taz, the Vilna Gaon, Hirsch, Heschel, the Maharam, the Maharal, the Maharsha, the Maharshal… so many books and so many Rabbis that it is easy to be overwhelmed searching for a satisfying answer. It quickly becomes much less of a hassle to just give up the search.


In this week’s parshah, Moses tells us “For the commandment (interpreted by the Rabbis as the whole of the Torah, both written and oral) which I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, for you do observe it (Deut 30:11-14).” We should never view the Torah and Jewish learning as something that is above our heads. God created it, and God created all of us with the capacity to learn it and contribute to its legacy. We must also be careful not to simply dismiss any practices and philosophies that we do not understand as the products of another culture or another era. The answers are near to us, if we are willing to make the effort to reach out and find them.

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