Parshat Nitzavim - Vayelech
“The Torah, which began in the nameless, unknowable past, ends in the limitless present and future.”
2006A Moment of Reflection and Renewal, Stationed at Sinai
- Everett Fox, introduction to Deuteronomy in The Five Books of Moses
Moments of transition provide opportunities, and challenges to our comfort zones. The Torah, as Fox elucidates, invites us to stretch our conception of the boundaries of time and space. This week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim – Vayelech, challenges us to expand our understandings of inclusion and accessibility, and it holds timely lessons as we enter this season of reflection and renewal.
On campuses throughout the world, Hillel professionals are participating in rituals that mark the beginning of each year – welcome events, inaugural Shabbat dinners, leadership retreats, and so much more. We open our doors – and our hearts, souls, and minds – to students who we hope to engage in a journey of learning and growth. For some Hillel staff members, this is the start of a new career; for others, this is a renewal of energy. For all of us, this is an opportunity to re-establish our commitments to improve ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.
At this moment of new beginnings, we are also mindful of indelible moments in the calendar that bind us to our recent past. Monday marked the fifth year since terrorists killed thousands of Americans and shattered the lives of thousands more on September 11, a national tragedy that is both a unique experience of suffering and an event that opened the unfolding chapter of history that we are now part of shaping. On a personal and communal level, this Saturday night brings us Selichot, the moment when Jews begin to add intensive prayers for forgiveness and move into the final stages of the annual process of teshuvah (repentance/returning) in advance of Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.
Our Torah portion presents the Children of Israel at their own moment of transition. Literally standing on the steppes of Moav, they are nearing the time when they will cross over the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land. Moshe, fully aware that his long life and extraordinary leadership that has spanned generations of the Children of Israel from slavery through the desert is at its end, begins his final exhortations of the people to carry forth the legacy of holiness:
“You are stationed here today, all of you before the Lord your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your overseers, every man of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and your sojourner who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, for you to pass into the Covenant of the Lord your God….And not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath but with him who is here standing with us this day before the Lord our God and with him who is not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29: 9-11, 13-14)
What is astounding is not only the powerful language of Moshe’s speech, but the extraordinary emphasis that the Torah places on who is meant to hear the message. It is addressed to everyone – not just those present, but those who are not present both temporally and spatially. We – you and I, as well as every Jewish person with whom we work and come into contact – are part of what Fox calls the “living audience.” We are connected into this ongoing covenantal moment.
As we reflect upon the dual work of this season – the work of welcoming and building relationships with students, as well as the work of reflecting upon our transgressions and how we have measured up to our potential – the imperative to broaden our conception of inclusion beyond the boundaries of time and space is both compelling and daunting. The questions are pressing: How do we include the “sojourner who is in (our) midst”? How do we relate not only to those who are with us, but also to those who are “not here with us this day”? How have we fallen short? Our ability to stretch ourselves, to model inclusion in both a broad and deep way, will affect not only the lives of the students with whom we work but those of the generations to follow.
Yet inclusion is not enough; we must also make our work relevant and accessible. Our Torah portion guides us toward this challenge: “This command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in the heavens, to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’…But the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11-12, 14)
It is not in the heavens. It is not out of our reach. The lessons of Torah – the Instruction on how to welcome the stranger, champion the oppressed, honor our ancestors, and reflect upon our role in our community and the cosmos – are all within our grasp. This is a lesson that girds us at our moments of transition.
But it is by no means easy. Just as the vision of all-encompassing inclusion challenges us to ask whether our comfort zone has become too cozy, so the promise of accessibility forces us to ask hard questions: How far are we stretching our own understanding? How are we making our work intelligible and relevant for others?
This week marks not only a moment of new beginnings, but also a moment of restoration of the better versions of ourselves and of our communities. The season of repentance is not only about mistakes and transgressions; it provides an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we have truly worked to transcend our comfort zones. The promise of a “limitless present and future” lies before us. My wish is that each and every one of us will reach beyond our usual grasp to engage our students – and ourselves – in a rich journey of learning and development and growth in the coming year.
Written by Michael Simon, Director of Programming for Harvard Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Nitzavim-Vayelech at MyJewishLearning.com.