Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech

Think of the children

A fundamental precept of Teshuva is that it is not necessarily confined to the individual’s personal relationship with Hashem. The obvious examples are transgressions against other people, in the event of which their forgiveness must be sought; and acts of public disgrace – Chillul Hashem.

When Moshe exhorts the people to commit to being God’s people, he warns them not to ascribe any negativity to God, because it is only projection:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His; it is His children’s defect, crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor points out that by saying this, Moshe was raising awareness of the realities people create. Transgressions and mistakes are genuinely bad – for you and the people around you. It’s quite simple – if you gossip a lot, the people you surround yourself with will gossip lots too. If you shout, people will shout at you, etc.

When a person wishes to change, although ideally, the slate is wiped clean, that is not always so simple. There are some things that can’t be taken back. Imagine the angry, rude, gossip around young children over a period of time. If, some time in the future, this person wished to change, he could change his behaviour – but what of all the young, impressionable people who observed and learnt from his conduct? The children don’t necessarily see the changed man, his Teshuva – they see the example that was set.

This was Moshe’s warning – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם – wayward children are not God’s fault. We are the ones responsible.

In our prayers over the Yamim Noraim, we frequently say how only God truly knows the reality of all things as they are:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – What is hidden is for Hashem; the revealed things are for us and our children together. (29:28)

R’ Ahron Belzer would often remark in the buildup to the Yamim Noraim that sometimes, it’s ok to reveal certain hidden things. Let your family see the changes in you, and not go on thinking that you’re just the same. This is especially important regarding young children – make sure that who you really are is someone worth showing them.

There is a skill to receiving a compliment, and stating the truth of things, that does not have to be arrogance. There is nothing more arrogant than faux humility – always be proud to say you’ve work hard for something.

Crutches and training wheels

In Moshe’s parting words to the nation, having dispensed his duties, he informs them how they need to face their responsibilities:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy the nations before you. (31:3)

The repeated emphasis on הוּא, that “He” will do it, seems strange. Why not just describe how God would take care of them in general?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the Jews were worried that by losing Moshe, they would lose two advantages; first, that he could and would intercede on their behalf if they erred, such as with the Golden Calf, where his prayer ended the plague and prevented their annihilation; and second, that he would not be leading them in the wars they would inevitably fight on entry into the Land of Israel. They did not (could not?) lose a war with Moshe at the helm.

Moshe addressed the first concern by telling them that they were misplacing their trust – it had never been about him. הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ – the same word used to describe Hashem’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע. Moshe explained that in reality, it had been Hashem all along, that He had planted the idea of praying for the Jews in Moshe, and that the desire to forgive would remain. Moshe had simply been a tool for forgiveness, and not the root cause.

Regarding the concern of losing battles, Moshe expressed the same idea – it had never been him leading them to victory – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem had been with them all the time, and would remain so evermore. They didn’t win wars because of Moshe, but because Hashem was orchestrating events.

Perhaps it also sheds light on the law that an army preparing for war did not enlist men who were frightened to fight. Someone who has done all they can to train and prepare must have proper faith in God – fear indicates a lack of belief, and such people cannot take up arms in His name.

The Seforno explains that the whole speech conveys this critical message – that they ought not get caught up in the medium. Hashem supervises and controls everything, and wanting a conduit is dangerous, and in parentheses, possibly idolatrous – this was precisely the rationale behind the Golden Calf. Moshe emphasised that every person alone has a relationship with Hashem, and that intermediaries are not valid representatives for the people themselves.

R Tzadok HaCohen notes how the whole Sefer Devarim – Moshe’s entire speech – can be read as speaking directly to the reader.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – the Mishna in Avos requires it of us. But living vicariously through a proxy is something else entirely. Moshe was telling the Jews that after 40 years of maturation, they were finally ready to become what they left Egypt to be.

Eventually, the training wheels have to come off.

The senses

As part of Moshe’s final speech, he recounts what the Jews went through on their journey through the desert, and how central the Torah was to how they perceived reality:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ. הַמַּסּוֹת, הַגְּדֹלֹת, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ, עֵינֶיךָ–הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים, הָהֵם. וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – And Moshe called all the Jews, and said to them: “You saw all that Hashem did in Egypt, with your own eyes, to Paroh, his servants, and his land. The great miracles and signs; you saw. Hashem didn’t give you a heart to understand, eyes to see, nor ears to hear, until this day.” (29:1-3)

Rashi elaborates that עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה refers when Moshe wrote the Torah in the form we have it, and give it to the Levi’im, who were the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding and teaching Torah. What changed then, that he recognised in them understanding and perception?

Rashi explains that when Moshe gave his Torah to the Levi’im, the other Jews protested them being singled out for keeping it, with the worry that perhaps Levi could exclude the other tribes with their monopoly. When Moshe saw their passion and the esteem in which they held the Torah, he praised them.

R’ Leib Salomon inquires what the line of protest may have been. They couldn’t be be concerned that perhaps Levi would misappropriate the Torah for themselves; because how could they? Levi are clearly delineated for public service – would would they serve?

R’ Matisyahu Salomon explains that they were not concerned about an exclusive claim to mitzva performance, but the capacity to be a Torah scholar. When Moshe saw people fighting for the right to study the Torah, he understood how much the Torah meant to them.

R’ Matisyahu points out that “The great miracles and signs you saw” were not enough to persuade Moshe that they had לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ – it was their desire and passion for Torah that precipitated this realisation.

Seeing miracles don’t makes someone a true ambassador of God; it is the struggle, the toil, that comes with intensive Torah study that transforms a Jew; which Moshe called the heart, eyes and ears.

Without it, we are dull, deaf, dumb, blind, and insensitive.