Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Parashat Nitzvaim-Vayeilech, 5760
Jonathan Baker, UTJ-L member.
The end of the Torah is a time of transition for Bnei Yisrael. In Ki
Tavo, we were given strong hints that this is a transition to a new stage
in the life of Israel, in the mitzvah of Bicurim, first fruits, whose performance
includes a recital of the Exodus experience. We know from the commentaries
to the Haggadah, (e.g. the Vilna Gaon on Dayenu) that this indicates that the culmination of the Exodus was the settlement and conquest of the Land, and the construction of the Temple where Judaism could be finally fully practiced.
This week's parasha, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, is the crux of that transition.
We see Bnei Yisrael being guided from a life of dependence on Hashem and
His servant Moshe into a life of necessary self-reliance. We have just
been given the Tochacha, the warnings of tortures to come if we do not
abjure idolatry. The parasha begins with more warnings against idolatry and its consequences. But the mood turns towards the end. In a passage redolent with return, Deut. 30:1-10, where the root "shuv", return, appears seven times, we are again given the chance to make up for our mistakes,
to return to God, and regain His favor. The parasha continues with the notice that the Torah is available, and in fact is entirely in our human domain - lo bashamayim hee - it is not in heaven.
This is an incredible passing of the baton. It is only reinforced by Moshe's passing of his authority to Yehoshua in Vayeilech. It is all very reminiscent of what the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l said shortly before his stroke: I have done all I can, the rest is up to you. See Deut. 31:1-6.
This transition brought a total change in Bnei Yisrael's relationship
with God and with the Torah. During Moshe's life, if something wasn't clear
from the Torah, people could always go to Moshe, Moshe would ask God, and
the law would be clarified, as it was when the daughters of
Tzlafchad needed clarification of the laws of inheritance. Now, Bnei Yisrael were thrown completely on their own in determining the Law.
The Talmud tells us, in Temurah 15-16, that 3000 halachot were lost when Moshe died. 1700 kal-vechomers and gezerah-shavahs were lost, but were reconstructed by Othniel ben Kenaz. Note: Reconstructed. Not re-received from Joshua as the prophet who was the primary carrier of the Torah tradition (see Avot 1:1). The Torah is not in Heaven, as the verse tells us in this parasha. It is near to you. It is for you to interpret, for you to understand, for you to decide how to live your lives.
Hashem has given us the warnings. But he has given us the remedy: teshuvah.
Hashem has taken away our direct conduit to Heaven, Moshe. But he has
given us the way to know God's will in all cases: Torah, and the authority
and ability to construct its applications to all
Hashem has taken away our crutch, our physical and spiritual support in the desert. But he has given us his blessing, Chazak Ve-ematz: be strong and courageous - you DO have the strength to carry on.
I [God] have given you the strength to carry on. I know you will fail, you will do the idolatry that I've been warning about, but it will not indicate the end of our relationship. Instead, it is an opportunity for teshuvah. I know you will lose many of the details of how to observe the Torah, but it will not be the end of your ability to do My will. Instead, it is an opportunity for you, and your authorized leaders, to better understand My will and re-apply it, knowing that they are doing the right thing.
This is the transition from the infancy of the nation to its adulthood. We had our bris (milah) and our bar-mitzvah (naaseh venishma, acceptance of responsibility for following the mitzvot) at Sinai. But one is not liable to punishment for one's actions until the age of 20, the beginning of adulthood (Y. Sanh. 56b). This is the transition to national adulthood, from the period of training in our Father's care, to complete responsibility for the nation's own actions.