THE FALL CLASSIC
If the first four books of the Torah are the regular season, then the book of Deuteronomy is the World Series. As the portions progress, we move from the preliminary preparations for the game to the final speech before marching on to the field.
If the first four books of the Torah are the regular season, then the book of Deuteronomy is the World Series. As the portions progress, we move from the preliminary preparations for the game to the final speech before marching on to the field. Our team has been through a lot this season the highlights of the exodus and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the tragic sin of the golden calf, as well as the prolonged losing streak of the spies, Korachs rebellion, and Moses sin of hitting the rock. Just as a coach would review the tapes of the seasons greatest wins and losses, Moses reminds us of our highs and lows. Again and again, Moses reminds us of the commandments and assures us of our ability to overcome our weaknesses.
However, all of that is in the past. In the Torah portions of Reeh, Shoftim, and Ki Teitzei we were drilled in the fundamentals the commandments. Parshat Ki Tavo discussed the blessings and dreams of glory, and the dire consequences of failure. As the anthem is sung and the crowd rises to its feet, in the dugout is Coach Moses telling over this weeks portion of Nitzavim/Vayelech.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that some of the most powerful and emotional language in the entire Bible is contained within this weeks portion. Merely glancing over the words of the Torah reveals the raw tension which is evident as Moses prophesies about the future of the Jewish nation. He introduces his speech by declaring that the Torah is binding on both those that are here, standing with us today before Hashem, and on those that are not here with us today (Deuteronomy 29:14). Is this not prophetic of a time when so many Jews will claim that the Torah is no longer applicable? Further, is it possible to overlook the fact that just a few verses later (in chapter 30), Moses tells us that after we have been exiled all over the world, Hashem will then return us to our land?
If we are moved by these verses, we should know that we are not the first. They were also effective in inspiring King Yoshiyahu, who lived towards the end of the first Temple period. Yoshiyahus grandfather was the infamous King Menashe, the evil man responsible for setting up idols in the Temple and known as one of the select few who are denied a share in the World to Come. Menashes son was Amon, who continued in the evil ways of his father. However, at the age of 24, Amon was assassinated by his servants. This brought the eight year-old Yoshiyahu to the throne. Needless to say, the spiritual state of the entire nation was rather dismal.
At the tender age of 8, Yoshiyahu began to seek the G-d of his forefather David, and at age 12, he began to purify Jerusalem and Judah from idol worship (II Chronicles 34:3-4). A new hope was born in Jerusalem as the king took it upon himself to reinvigorate the nation. When Yoshiyahu was 26, he began a much-needed restoration of the Temple. During this process, a Torah scroll was found in the Temple and was brought before the king to be read. The Bible relates, It happened that when the king heard the words of the scroll of the Torah, he tore his garments (II Kings 22:11). Imagine the king of Israel crying over the words of the Torah, for he had never heard them before! The book of Kings continues to describe that the reform process which Yoshiyahu had introduced reached new heights, and that he gathered the entire nation to Jerusalem on Passover to reintroduce them to the covenant with Hashem.
We must ask ourselves, which part of the Torah is so inspirational as to trigger these events? Based on parallel language between the above account and this weeks Torah portion, the commentators conclude that it was indeed this weeks portion that was read to King Yoshiyahu and brought about these reforms.
Despite the apparent success and enthusiasm generated by Yoshiyahu and his policies, the teshuvah (repentance) movement was lacking. In one of the most telling prophesies delivered at that time, the prophet Jeremiah warns the people of overconfidence. In chapter four of the book of Jeremiah, there is one short verse which is very revealing. As Jeremiah is describing to the people the blessings which await them if they repent, he tells them to plow for yourselves a furrow, and do not sow upon thornbushes (Jeremiah 4:3). The commentators explain that this refers to the fact that before a field is to be sown, it must be cleared out and plowed through, and not merely sown upon as is. The message of Jeremiah is clear: One cannot start fresh until he resolves to do away with the old. One needs to dig into his heart and resolve to change in order to complete his teshuvah. The fact that Jeremiah admonished the people on this account teaches us that the teshuvah in the days of Yoshiyahu was somewhat lacking.
The sages in the Talmud expand upon this theme. The Talmud teaches us that Yoshiyahu set up a police force whose job it was to make sure that idolatry was eradicated from the land of Israel. In response to this, many of the people constructed idols which were to be placed partially on the door and partially on the wall. When the idolatry police would come in, the door would be opened and the idol would become unrecognizable. However, as soon as the door was closed the idol was once again intact. In this way, they evaded detection and the idolatry was never fully eradicated.
In this Midrash, the rabbis are affirming the notion that we developed before from Jeremiah's prophecy, namely that the teshuvah was far more external than internal. Unfortunately, the untimely death of Yoshiyahu marked the death of the teshuvah movement which he instituted. Sincere repentance requires internal resolve, not merely conforming to social trends.
We are just a few days away from the most important days of our season. It is no coincidence that the rabbis arranged the Torah readings and the calendar so that Nitzavim/Vayelech are read around the time of Rosh Hashanah. We are intended to study this portion and become inspired by it to do teshuvah. However, we must remember the lesson of Yoshiyahu, who was also moved by this weeks Torah portion, and not forget the prophets warning: Plow for yourselves a furrow, and do not sow upon thornbushes (Jeremiah 4:3).
This dvar torah is based on the lectures of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, given at Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Chaim Saiman, a native Atlantan, is in his third year of law school at Columbia University.
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