The Torah reviews its memories


Special to WJW.

This week’s Torah portion is Nitzavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30.

As people age and realize they are nearing the end of their lives, they begin a process called life review. Life review is different for each person, but it involves a return to memories, such as our actions and the people we’ve encountered. It’s our psyche helping us to reach a point where we feel like we’ve done enough teshuva, so that we can move on n peace.

This week’s reading comes near the end of the Torah. It comprises two Torah portions which are read together as a single unit. This particular double parsha has always struck me as a life review for the Torah. The work of the five books has been to get us ready to be an independent, moral people that can enter the Promised Land. Here we are, a couple weeks before we complete our Torah cycle, prepared to enter.

It all comes back to the names of the Torah portions themselves: Nitzavim means “to stand” and vayelech means “and he walked” or “he went.” They’re two words with opposite meanings that are supposed to harmonize into one joint meaning.

Let’s take a closer look.

Nitzavim is a rarely used word for standing; the more commonly used word is omdim. According to various sources, nitzavim connotes not merely standing but also making oneself available to the exchange of ideas or taking a stand for something one believes in.

I associate nitzavim with Moshe. Why? The parsha begins, “Atem nitzavem hayom kulchem” (You all stand this day). What is hayom/this day? Moshe’s final day; the day of his death. The book of Deuteronomy has been Moshe’s goodbye, his life review of everything since he answered God’s call to set Israel free from slavery.

I read Moshe’s use of the word nitzavim almost as a plea to these people, who can be as recalcitrant as they can be accepting: “Don’t just stand here, take a stand.”

I associate vayelech (and he walked) with Avraham and the scene in which God tells him: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).

The word vayelech echoes Avraham as he answers God’s call to leave all that he has ever known to go to an unknown place and begin a new future. A future in which, through Moshe, you and I live.

Life review. The Torah is reminding itself and us that the story began with one person being asked to lech/go and ultimately make a covenant with God not only for himself but also for his family, then and in future.

It ends with one person standing and asking others to stand/take a stand/nitzavim at that moment for themselves and also for “him that is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:14).

What are the messages of Nitzavim-Vayelech?  Two opposites can form a single unit. Take a stand in order to move on.  Walk into the unknown in order to listen well and know what is worth believing in. All are instructive messages with which to begin our review of this past year and begin planning for the new year.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community chaplain.

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