Once again, we have a “double Torah portion” this week which is when we have two Torah portions combined into one. The first reading is that of “Nitzavim” and the second one is “Vayelech” – which combined covers Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30. Not only do we have a double portion, but this week is the last Shabbat of the year, considering that Rosh Hashanah – the New Jewish Year- begins Wednesday night!
The reading opens with Moses, on the last day of his life, gathering the entire nation together for his final words and to publicly re-confirm the Jewish people’s status and role as the Chosen People. Moses also warns the people to keep the Torah and to keep far away from idolatry, and he reminds them that the Jewish people were given the Land of Israel in order to be able to live as Jews and keep the Torah.
As part of his parting words, Moses calls upon “the heavens and earth” to serve as the everlasting witnesses and reminders of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. “I have placed before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life!”
What’s going on here? What are these witnesses? How will they remind the Jewish people to keep the covenant and observe the Torah?
As one commentary teaches: “Look at the heavens that I created to serve you! Have they ever deviated from their mission? Has the sun ever missed a day and not risen? Look at the earth! It produces fruit from seeds just as it should. If the heavens and the earth -–which do not receive reward for their loyalty– do not deviate from their mission, how much more so should you, the Jewish people –who do receive reward for their loyalty– not deviate from your mission.
But here’s the question. What’s the comparison here all about? How can God or Moses compare the role of heaven and earth with the role of mankind? The heavens and the earth are programmed to do what they are supposed to do. The don’t have free choice. No challenges, no evil inclinations. They have no decisions to make. Every day is the same. Man, on the other hand, is not preprogrammed. We have desires, tests, and inclinations. Every day is different, often unpredictable. Decisions must be made on the spur of the moment depending on one’s circumstances. So what is this with using the heavens and the earth to be our witnesses that we keep the Torah?
Among the answers given is that we should look at the heavens and the earth and realize that, hey, nothing has changed. It is the same sky and the same ground that has been around since creation. So too, we are to realize that the Torah has also been around since time immemorial. And just like the sky and earth is still as relevant as it was when it was created, so too, the Torah and the mitzvot are just as relevant as when they were given.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us keep this message in mind. Being a Jew is as relevant today as it ever was. Commitment to Torah, God, good deeds, is not “lame” or “out of date.” Let us remember the words of Moses: “Choose life!” And there is no greater life than one filled with Torah and good deeds!
Shana Tova! Happy New Year!
Rabbi Ari Enkin