Moses’ Rosh Hashanah message


This week’s Torah portion is Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20.

Nitzavim depicts the conclusion of Moses’ long farewell oration. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he has given the people a list of laws and regulations they should follow when they enter the land of Israel. He has already told them that he’s not going with them. He is destined to die on the east side of the Jordan River, but he wants to send them forth with memorable last words.

The scene I envision is one where the people have tried to listen intently, but the list of rules is so long that their attention has waned. Now it’s time to conclude, so Moses knows he needs to get their attention again. He shifts from the didactic to the prosaic, speaking words which are some of the most beautiful in the Torah, if not in all of Western literature:

“Surely the Torah is not baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea….No, it is very close to you, in your mouth and in our heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30.11 – 15).

Having gone into extensive detail in the preceding chapters, Moses now encapsulates all the laws by saying that they are not arduous and complex. The people only need to observe them. In the doing, they’ll find the meaning. Moreover, they’ll find a reason for their observance:

“See, I set before you today, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so you and your offspring would live” (Deuteronomy 30.19).

Every year, we read this Torah portion on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. This is no accident. As we begin the Ten Days of Repentance, these words should provide instruction as to how we can improve ourselves during the year ahead.

In my years of working with seniors, I have seen the value of this idea. Many people recognize and recall things which they regret, perhaps 40 or 50 years after the fact.

They wonder how they can make amends, even if the person they’ve offended is no longer living. I have told them to pick a mitzvah — giving a few cents to charity, saying prayers for food or offering words of blessing to relatives and dear friends — and to be mindful to observe it whenever they have the opportunity. I have found that those words of advice were helpful.

As the New Year begins, it’s time to make a new start. The Torah can provide the guide for doing so. If we choose life, we can have a good year.

Questions for discussion

What excuses do we tell ourselves or others when we fall short in performing Jewish obligations?

Can you see the life-giving nature of performing a mitzvah?

Can you find one mitzvah you’ll concentrate on during the coming year?

Rabbi James Michaels recently retired as director of pastoral Care at the Charles E Smith Life Communities, where he is the director of pastoral education.

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