The way that the Jewish calendar is
organized requires that, in most years, the two parashiot
Nitzavim and Vayelekh are read together. This makes sense
because they have a similar meaning and we shall therefore
discuss them together.
The commentary on these parashiot
is difficult and lengthy for several reasons:
" these parashiot represent the apex of the Torah,
prior to its conclusion. After them, there remain only
" they focus on critical existential choices;
" their themes cannot be treated lightly or briefly,
but require length and close attention.
" it is essential to read the two parashiot in their
entirety (even in English) before studying this commentary;
" readers must be prepared not to understand everything
immediately, to lose the thread at times and to forget
certain parts. This is not something negative -- our neshama
(soul) understands often when the intellect does not -
and this stage is beneficial to the learning process.
So it is important to persist, without worrying.
I. THE BASES OF THESE PARASHIOT
Problem: love or admonition?
The parashiot return to the subject of admonitions and
obligations, while the haftarot (Isaiah 61 and Hosia 14)
introduce a happy note which will enable us to understand
the meaning of the parashiot.
Two mitzvot: union and adhesion
There are two mitzvot in parasha
Vayelekh, and they are the last two in the Torah:
" mitzva 612 (Devarim
31, 10-12, hakel et ha am), Moshe commands "all Israel"
to appear before Hashem to hear the Torah, old and young,
rich and poor, men and women, everyone together;
" mitzva 613 (Devarim 31, 19 kitvu lakhem et ha shira
hazot), the last in the Torah, commands [each member of
the people] to write a sefer Torah (Torah scroll).
The Shla will help us to discover
the connection between the two mitzvot.
The meaning of the first mitzva:
The first mitzva stresses the fact that the entire people
constitute one unity, as with Jacob's family when they
arrived in Egypt: it is written that they were as one
nefesh, one spirit, in the singular (kol hanefesh, Bereshit
46,26).And when Moshe assembles the people, even those
who are not there physically are present, which means
all those who will join the people through conversion
("ve et asher einenu po imanu hayom, and also with
him that is not here with us this day" Devarim 29,
14). For "the portion of Hashem is his people, helek
Hashem amo" (Devarim 32, 9).
The meaning of the second
Just like the people, the Sefer Torah is one unity: if
one letter is missing, or imperfect, the entire scroll
loses its value and cannot be used until the mistake is
rectified. It is the same for our people: each person
who is lost to the people or who becomes a member of the
people, adds or takes away value from the whole. This
means everyone is worthy of respect, including those who
wish to convert. Furthermore, each section of the Torah
resembles the whole; thus the verse quoted above regarding
the whole people applies to each individual.
It is therefore important
to think about how these mitzvot apply to our relations
with others and whether we reject any Jews or sections
of the community.
The Torah begins with the
letter beit (numerical value = 2) in order to show us
that everything in creation has two components, like a
married couple. Thus the apparently contradictory elements
in the two mitzvot (Torah and people) cannot be separated.
This is why the Torah must be read collectively and each
Jew must write it down in his own style.
The people and the land are
essential for the divine presence
The Shla tells us that these parashiot help us to understand
the image of the chariot (merkava) supporting the divine
presence in Ezekiel, chapters 1, 8, and 10. A chariot
is not functional unless each of its four wheels are in
perfect condition and operate in coordination.
The two, the land and the
people, have an equal function -- to carry the divine
presence. Man and divinity are united. This is why, says
the Shla, the soil of the holy land (adama) and the name
of man (adam) have the same root.
The letter he which ends the
word adama, soil, refers more to the divine presence.
This could be because the apparent passivity of nature
reflects the Creator more, while the divine presence is
only apparent in man if he consciously makes room for
it. This is the theme of the parashiot.
Thus the three essential components
- Torah-people-land as the dwelling places for the divine
presence - are not the product of modern religious Zionism.
They are the bases of the Torah.
One finds this inter-connection and coordination in parasha
Haazinu, in the Song of Moshe, when he says (32, 5): shihet
lo lo banav mumam, Is corruption His? No. His children's
is the blemish." The Hebrew text plays on words (lo
lo, the first lo meaning "Him" and the second
meaning "No" in order to emphasize the choice
between acceptance or rejection, between life or death,
between happiness or affliction. This is the challenge
which confront all Jews in every generation.
Rabbenu Bahya begins his commentary on the parasha by
stressing the necessity of moral reprimand in love, for
only this enables love to bloom and prevents it from withering.
The curses spelt out should therefore be understood as
a warning to man of the nefarious consequences that will
befall him if he strays from the divine path. Readers
should refer to the commentary on parasha Ekev.
The parasha stresses another point: choosing the right
way does not mean choosing to follow a moral theory; it
is a concrete choice which must be made "today"
(hayom) and forever (read Devarim 30, 26-18).
The expression hayom represents a basic concept of Judaism:
it appears 435 times in the Bible in this form, without
counting other forms. In Vayelekh, see chapter 29 verses
9,11, 12, 14, 17 and chapter 30, verses 2, 8, 11, 15,
16, 18, 19. The divine presence is not virtual; it manifests
itself now, in a concrete encounter enabled by the mitzvot
and the good intentions of our hearts. Thus our bond with
Hashem is an intimate, livint relationship, which continues
Is the entire Torah accessible?
The parasha stresses the following:
" The entire Torah is accessible and applicable to
" It is not something esoteric or hidden (these things
belong to God and are not in the Torah which is here with
us). The Rambam deals with this question in his Introduction
to the Torah.
" The Sages delved deep into the Torah in order to
understand its complex issues (the resurrection of the
dead, the messiah, the world to come, etc. ) and their
interpretations vary, but these variations are unimportant
for they highlight the richness of the mitzvot and the
" Each mitzva has different levels of meaning, varying
from simple and apparent to complex and subtle, and these
can be discovered through study. The same applies to the
names of God in the Torah.
" In brief, the entire Torah is accessible to us,
and can be understood by us, even at its highest levels
The power of man
The parasha describes the
extent of man's power, which in action, thought, feeling
or prayer, can destroy or, in contrast, integrate the
divine presence, which is the source of happiness.
[2nd level: short section for advanced students
The source of happiness
1. It is written in Nitzavim
30, 12: "mi yaale lanu hashamima, who will go up
for us to heaven?" This phrase refers to man's tendency
to flee from personal, communal and spiritual happiness
on earth by seeking new ideologies and ways of salvation.
2. The answer is given in
the acronym formed by the first letters of each word in
the above phrase, which is mila, circumcision (Mi Iaale
Lanu Ashamayim) and in the tetragram formed by the last
letters of the phrase and constituting the supreme name
of God. This shows us that, in contrast to the doctrines
and ideologies that lead us to false messiahs and distance
us from God, we have been shown in the Torah the concrete
and corporal (mila) paths we must follow in order to connect
with the divine elements which rule the world and all
living beings. This teaches us that, for man, the only
path which enables true comprehension of the Torah is
the mila, circumcision.
Abyss or Rahamim, the source
of our salvation
The parasha tells us that, even if we do all this, we
still need to appeal to God's mercy (Rahamim), which is
necessary when man strays or his qualities are insufficient.
The source of benediction
opens by itself if man has done his best; he will be surprised
to see that salvation will come from deep within himself,
turning bad into good, as is written in Psalm 121: "meayin
yavo ezri" which can be translated both as "from
whence cometh my help" and "from the abyss cometh
my help" (through His mercy) for this inaccessible
level (ayin) is the source of all benediction, that of
ratzon and of God's name Ehie, as noted by Rav Gikatilia
in Shaarei Ora.
end of 2nd level]
The "rules of the game" of life
- These two parashiot, at
the end of Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah, summarize
the "rules of the game" of life and of the Torah.
- What appear to be benedictions
and admonitions have a functional role: they demonstrate
to man that he himself can freely open or close the source
of benediction which God has made accessible to us, if
we adhere to his instructions.
- The haftarot show us how
happiness can be attained if these instructions are used
wisely. And they depict man's ability to reverse terrible
situations, once he understands this process.
[2nd level: short section
for advanced students.
The above can be linked to the Shla's commentary on prayers.
He begins his commentary on the Siddur, the book of prayers,
with an affirmation that, he says, is the basis of all
prayer. The name of God (Hashem), which is written in
four letters in the Bible, is also written in four different
ways, in four names. The gematria, numerical value of
the letters in these four names, is 232. This "figure"
represents the power and diversity of the creative process
that sustains the world. A Jew who prays knows that when
he articulates the different names of the Creator, he
is actively helping to sustain the world through prayer.
The importance of what the
Shla writes at the top (reshit) of his commentary is seen
in the fact that the figure 232 is also the gematria of
two other verses in the Torah and of two major concepts:
" that of the Torah, for the numerical value of the
first word in God's creation ("yehi or, let there
be light") is also 232;
" that of the presence of God among the people of
Israel: ("ami leolam ve iadatem ki bekerev yisrael
ani veani Hashem eloheihkem veein od, my people forever,
ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that
I am Hashem thy Elohim and there is none else," Yoel
2, 26-27 in the haftara of Vayilekh). The numerical value
of the first letters of these words is also 232.
end of 2nd level]
The indivisible triangle
In his commentary, the Shla seeks to demonstrate the indivisibility
of three elements: the name of the Creator, the action
of creation in light, and Israel. Three concepts; three
points as in the vowel point segol. Let us not forget
that the people of Israel are am segula, the people of
segol says the Zohar, who through these three points hold
the past, the present and the future, just as in our prayers
we use the three tenses: Hashem melekh (Hashem reigns),
Hashem malakh (Hashem reigned), Hashem yimlokh (Hashem
Israel ensures the world's
This concept which links the people to the creation of
the world, tells us that the people of Israel (in its
entirety, klal, all the children of Israel, all Jews)
ensure the existence and permanency of the world.
Thus the issue is not just
about benedictions and admonitions for individuals or
for the Jewish people, but it is about the maintenance
of the world itself. For what is at stake is the link
with the source of life itself.
This is a process of continual
re-creation. Thus it is said that students of the Torah
maintain the world in existence and ensure peace in the
Other nations refer to the
same concept when they use the expression the "chosen
people." The problem is that the word "chosen"
has connotations of respect, jealousy and scorn and is
a mistranslation of am segula which means "treasured
people." But we cannot reproach those who are ignorant
of the great role of the people of Israel or the richness
of the Torah for making such a mistake. Moreover the conduct
of Jews is not always the best example of this glorious
role. One day, says the prophet, the nations will understand
and will beg each Jew, saying: "initiate me in your
knowledge which is so great."
It goes without saying this role, of maintenance and creativity,
was not given to the Jewish people as a title, or as real
estate, or as valuables to be deposited in a bank vault,
or as book for one's library. The Jewish people only possess
it to they extent that they adhere to the Torah in every
aspect of their lives.
But even when a Jew lapses
or choose to adhere to other values, his Creator does
not abandon him.
From this we understand that
our prayers, which are strictly organized in terms of
daily rhythms, text, intentions, and physical positions,
represent the score which this creative people follow
in order to maintain optimal order and diffuse benediction
in the world. This is perhaps the reason by many of the
Psalms of David begin with the word lamenatzeah which
means "to the conductor." The standard translation
"to the chief musician" does not render the
range expressed in the Hebrew.
Israel's well-being is important
for the world
The perfect unity and complementarity of God-nation-individual-creation,
which is the source of all happiness, is beautifully expressed
in Psalm 96, 11, which every Jew knows: "yismehu
hashamyim vetagel haaretz, let the heavens rejoice and
the earth be glad."
It is remarkable how even
secular Jews sing this verse: it is universal in every
sense of the word. This is because the well-being of every
Jew is important for the people, for the nations of the
world, and for all creation.
What do the words of this
verse express, in addition to joy? They say that Hashem
is present in all things, even if man does not see, know
or wish to know this. How do they tell us this? Through
the initials of each of the words in the verse, for together
they form the name of Hashem: so we can then say:
"Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee, asherei
yoshevei veitekha" (Psalm 84, 5).
Those who doubt
But of what import is this invisible presence to man,
when the one thing we are certain of is that it takes
the form of an absence? This question does not only stem
from the doubt which impregnates all existence. It also
stems from a person's inability to hear that someone,
a man or a woman, loves us. This is why we should constantly
repeat: "Hear, Oh Israel
Union in joy
A person who does not profoundly feel and respond to someone's
love, will not feel the love Hashem has for us, nor the
beauty with which He has adorned nature and human beings.
Why do I say this with such
conviction? Because, not only do the initial letters of
these words of joy (yismehu hashamyim vetagel haaretz,
let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad) represent
the presence of Hashem, the final letters, when put together
from the end, constitute the word tzalmo (in his image),
which emphasizes the fact that man (woman and man as one
being) was made in the image of his creator.
This means that a person who is sensitive to Hashem from
the time of creation to "now," when He renews
His creation at every moment, is in a union of joy with
This is lived out in everyday
life with the same simplicity as the sun slips into the
sky and this is what the Shla tells us in: helek hashem
amo (it is a part of Hashem His people).
One's inner being
This too is invisible, even more invisible than the presence
of Hashem but it is important to search for the inner
being in every Jew for this is the part of Hashem, part
of the universal being made in His image.
Joy for the entire people
There is no happiness unless it includes the entire people.
It must be expressed collectively. This is the basis for
a healthy relationship between the Jewish people, the
rest of the world, and God.
But this joy is not always
expressed collectively. Jews have not yet had the time
to truly feel this presence and spiritual joy, nor all
that it represents in tradition. 50 years for a new state
is short in terms of history, and these fifty years only
involve a minority of the Jewish people.
Nor is it surprising to see
that this approach of joy linked to Hashem is alien to
modern man: few Jews truly feel sorrow at the destruction
of Hashem's sanctuary which is on Har Habait (Temple Mount).
The proof is that, after having won it back from the enemy
who attacked us, we abandoned it to another people who
are our rivals and who come to Jerusalem every week, chanting
"let us go up to Jerusalem" in honor of God.
The Temple Mount was not taken from us. It is our leaders
who did not want it, for they were ignorant of its importance.
In contrast, every Friday, thousands of Arabs and sometimes
hundreds of thousands come to pray there. How many Jews
come to pray at the Wall at the same time? This is like
someone abandoning his love letters and letting someone
else read them. The best we can and should do is to go
and pray at the Wall, as has been the practice since the
exile. Our Sages wisely write that the more our conscience
and religious fervor decreases, the more that of other
III. A POIGNANT CRY
1. These two parashiot represent
a poignant cry by Hashem: "choose life, love me for
I love you, for I am your source and your joy." It
is like the cry of a lover, while his beloved sleeps.
How many do not see that
" the heart of Judaism are the two cherubs who love
each other face to face in the Holy of Holies,
" the heart of the Torah is Shir Hashirim (the Song
" the shema Yisrael, the symbol of every Jew, is
surrounded in the prayer book by the word ahava (love).
The Torah is about to reach its conclusion and Hashem
makes his appeal and calls on the heavens and the earth
as witnesses. He will repeat the whole story by linking
the last letter of the Torah (the l of Israel) to the
first letter ( the b of Bereshit) in order to base everything
once again on the heart (lev), which is formed with the
letters l and b.
So much time has been lost.
What a waste!
Shir Hashirim, the Song of
Songs, tells us this, but sometimes we do not wish to
2. Already, in the past the
nations of the world did not want to listen to God and
to accept the reality of the world as the garden of Eden
and of love, so Hashem chose a small people who would
hear Him. We must be deaf if we do not to hear the Torah's
cry of: "choose life
.to love Hashem thy God"
(Devarim 30, 19).
3. The Sages tell us: Hakadosh
Barukh Hu desires the prayers of the tzaddikim (Tractate
Yevamot 64 a) or Hakadosh Barukh Hu desires the conversation
of pious women, tzidkaniot (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 7
a) or Hakadosh Barukh Hu desires the blessings of the
cohanim (Tractate Sotah 38 b).
4. Before he dies, Moshe wants
to make us understand this love and this need for love:
the book of Devarim is, as a result, the most tender and
poignant of all the books of the Torah.
5. The Zohar uses its poetry
and mysticism to transmit the same message: "Ribbi
Shimon bar Yohai said: collective prayer rises towards
Hakadosh Barukh Hu and becomes a crown of many colors
on the head of He who is righteous and eternal, while
the prayer of an individual becomes a crown of just one
color" (I, 167 b).
6. The haftarot also use poetical
and musical tools to show us the beauty of a life of communal
love with Hakadosh Barukh Hu.
7. As the end of the Song
of Songs says, what can He who loves and gives everything
(Hakadosh Barukh Hu) do when someone does not love in
return or give with all his heart (Song of Songs 8, 7):
even if he gave all his possessions, he would only be
met with scorn for Hashem desires the heart.
But He hopes that his people
will wake up and say: karmi sheli lefanai ("My vineyard,
which is mine is before me" ibid 8, 12).
1. He who does not choose
life will view the world and his own life as a failure
(keshel) and will only see the first letters (keshel)
of the three words of the phrase karmi sheli lefanai (my
vineyard is before me, ibid 8, 12).
2. Man must raise his eyes
in order to see the world through the eyes of God, from
His place and His makom. This is what the Torah teaches
us: "essa einai el he arim meayin yavo ezri, I will
life up mine eyes unto the hills (or unto the patriarchs
or the heavens) from whence cometh my help" (Psalm
121, 1). This seems to direct us to void and emptiness
(ain) but this is the experience on which life is based,
not on immediate sensations of fullness. Only the experience
of want and lack of knowledge allows man to attain plenitude.
And it sharpens the conscience.
3. We can now understand why
Hashem said to Avram (Bereshit 13, 14-15): sa na einekha
u ree min ha makom asher ata sham tzafona vanegva vayama,
ki et kol haaretz asher ata roe lekha atenena u lezarakha
ad olam. Hashem asks of Avram: "Lift up now thine
eyes and look from the place where thou art northward,
and southward, and eastward, and westward. For all the
land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to
thy seed forever." To paraphrase, this means that
Hashem tells us: "Raise your eyes from the place
where you live to the place which is your source, to Me,
and from there you will see all of life in all its facets,
and through the bond between you and Me, this land which
you see will become yours and you will acquire the knowledge
to pass it on to your children, and they to their children."
This is what Avraham succeeded in doing, when he understood
the lesson of the akeda (sacrifice): he saw from afar
and understood the true meaning of the place of Hashem
(Bereshit 22, 4), the place of true vision which is simultaneously
that of Hashem and of man. His servants, for their part,
could not see what he saw (Bereshit 22, 5).
4. The dilemmas faced by Jews
are even more pertinent today than in the past. The Jew
has returned to the land of Israel but the questions he
face remain the same: does he see, does he hear, does
he love, does he choose LIFE, life according to His Torah?
5. Avraham showed us the right
way: he discovered that the world is truly based on happiness,
love, and hessed and not on the superficiality and brutality
of economic, physical or political forces that are called
reality but which our Sages call emptiness and vanity
(see the poem, The Three Suns).
Having understood that reality
is based on love, Avraham, the prototypal Jew, re-created
the process of creation both in the physical world and
in the world of human relationships (behibaram, Avraham).
The question presented to
Jews is: "I have placed before you life and death,
choose life" (Devarim 30, 19). "To be"
(in the full sense of the word and not just to "exist")
or "not to be" is the essential question, as
Shakespeare well understood. For Jews "to be"
means to live simultaneously in all our dimensions (people,
The is the challenge that
every Jew has to face and he must do it on his own. This
is exemplified by our father Avraham, the re-creator of
the world, of whom it is said (Ezekiel 33, 24):
ehad yaha Avraham vayirash et haaretz
"Avraham was one and he inherited the land."
This has nothing to do with the choices made by a democratic
Tradition says that he was
yahid -- simultaneously whole, unique, connected and alone.
The Torah has given us in Avraham the model which we should
follow every day. This is why we describe his struggles
at the very beginning of the daily prayers (read the akeda,
Bereshit 22) and why he is named at the top of the Amida
prayer (God of Avraham, Eloke Avraham).
Let us wish that everyone
can attain this complex wholeness,
and achieve unity between these different dimensions of
And may this unity be acknowledged and loved by others,
especially those we need in our neshama.
Then this intimacy will be
in harmony with the other colors,
like the sapphire blue which links us in an unbroken line
with the sea, the horizon, the sky and finally the supreme
throne above, as is described in Tractate Hulin 89 a.
Exercises for personal development
1. This parasha requires in-depth
reflection on a number of essential points. Readers should
make note of them, study and discuss them with others.
2. Questions on the Torah which relate to ourselves:
" How do we view life and death?
" Is life as described by the Torah at the center
of own lives?
" Do we feel in harmony with the different elements
that make up the Jewish people, or do they seem alien
to us? Do we really know them? Do we make disparaging
remarks about them? Consider how this can harm the Sefer
Torah and Hashem.
Re-read the parasha and look up all the references.
For advanced students
Read the Ramban's introduction to his commentary on the
Refer to the sources that are cited in it.
In reference to hessed, the
way to life and the way to death, see the poem and picture
A night for Three Suns.