By Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Nitzavim-Va’yelech, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have always been greeted by Jews with a mix of joy and trepidation. My adrenaline level rises as I see, week by week, that the Torah readings get closer to the end of the book of Deuteronomy. These readings are designed around the concepts of introspection, repentance and freedom of choice.
Parashat Nitzavim (often combined with Va-yelekh) invariably is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. The portion begins with a renewal of the brit (covenant), continues with the concept of teshuvah (repentance) and concludes with some of the most magnificent words in Torah, that of the incredible accessibility of Torah. “It [the Torah] is not in heaven, so that you might say, ‘Who shall go up to heaven and bring it to us . . .
Who will cross the sea and get it for us . . . ?’ It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14).
Covenant is a special contractual relationship with God. This Torah relationship is one that can never be abrogated, neither by us nor by God. We are bound in a sacred compact from the time of Sinai.
Repentance is a gift of benevolence on God’s part. Falling short of fulfilling the covenant, through sin, God gives us the opportunity to rectify our wrongs, through the process of teshuvah. Burdens of sin would be impossible to bear if not for the possibility of doing teshuvah, cleaning the slate and receiving forgiveness from God.
Torah implies the concept of freedom of choice. Without free will, the Torah makes no sense at all. High Holy Day prayers would be meaningless without free will. Indeed, the mitzvah system of do’s and don’ts would make little sense. How could we be judged on Rosh Hashanah — the Day of Judgment — if we did not have a choice, whether to obey God?
The Torah admonishes us, “See! Today I have set before you life and good, death and evil.” Chaim, life, is here defined as, “I have commanded you today to love God your Lord, to walk in His paths and to keep His commandments, decrees and laws.”
The 15th century Italian commentator Rabbeinu Ovadiah Soforno comments that the difference between chaim (life) and tov (goodness) is in duration. True life endures forever, but good is transitory. It doesn’t last. The same holds true for mavet (death) and ra (evil). Death is everlasting, while evil is suffering that passes eventually.
The clear, desirable choice is life and goodness. But living in accordance with what is right, is demanding. The Torah makes its case even stronger, “Before you I have placed life and death, the blessing and the curse. You must choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.”
Selichot penitential prayers are recited in preparation for the holiest period in Judaism, the Ten Days of Repentance. Ashkenazi Jews recite selichot for at least four days leading into Rosh Hashanah. Sephardic Jews recite selichot for the entire month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain. His last duty station was at what is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.