Elul 23, 5780 – September 12, 2020
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:1-30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual portion of Parashat Nitzavim (meaning “standing”) and Parashat Vayelech (meaning “and he went”) or, in this case, “Moshe went.” In this calendar year, during the year of 5780, this dual portion is read the week before Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year – on the 23rd of Elul. This is traditionally a time when we begin reflecting upon the previous year, reviewing our inner emotions and feelings, and praying for forgiveness. In Ashkenaz communities, this coming week is a time when we say selichot, which are penitential prayers of supplication that are said in preparation for the Days of Awe (a period that is also known as the Ten Days of Repentance). But it’s worthwhile to note that in the Sephardic tradition, selichot are said from the beginning of the month of Elul, which corresponds with the New Year of the Animals – the New Year for the domesticated animals, in Hebrew known as “Rosh Hashanah LaBehemot.” Traditionally this is a time when we are encouraged to check the kosherness of our tefillin, mezuzot, and all of the ritual items that are made from animals. We also blow the shofar, which is made from the horn of a kosher animal. But – in particular – it’s an important time, as we are reflecting upon the integrity of our own actions, that we also think about the animals that play an integral role in our physical and spiritual evolution. Even Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) are traditionally made from animal skins, so our reading, our learning, our ritual life, and our physical and spiritual nourishment are entwined with the lives of animals. Having this type of awareness can help reinforce the notion that we are all interconnected, which is an essential step towards the cultivation of an ecological consciousness.
The bulk of Parashat Nitzavim is the final part of Moshe’s last address to the Jewish People. His life is at its end, he has reached the final stages – the apex – of his spiritual journey and has already been told by Hashem that he cannot cross the Jordan. Even after the long rebuke in the previous portion (Parashat Ki Tavo, ch.28) – a sobering section of the Torah known as the “Admonition,” which contains no less than ninety-eight curses – Moshe warns about the dangers of idolatry and the exilic consequences that will result if the Jewish people turn away from Hashem. But this portion also includes some of the most fundamental precepts of Judaism – the unity of Israel, freedom of choice, and the practicality of Torah. One of the most magnificent, and revealing, verses is where Moshe speaks about the very nature of the Torah (in 30:14). He says: “It is not hidden from you…It is not in heaven…Nor is it across the sea…Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” The power of the Torah is not off in some other place. It is here, now, with you, with us, and with the earth. Throughout many Jewish texts, the Sages speak about the jealousy of the angels – for example, the Baal Shev Tov once wrote about the jealousy of Archangel Michael, and what the angel would give up just to be able to perform a mitzvah. In the Talmud (Shabbat 88b-88a) we read about a conversation Moshe is having with the angels about why the Torah is given to the people of the earth, and the explanation involves the sanctification – the celebration – involved in the transformation of the material world (which is, from a traditional rabbinic point of view, accomplished through the mitzvot). In the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 4:22) we read: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come.” A corporeal existence – a life of the body, of physical form, and of the earth – is where we find the wonder and beauty of the Torah. This is an amazing idea, that the beings we call in to guard us when we sleep, the four malachim that we feel around us every time we study Torah, are jealous of us. The Torah is there to help us understand how to be human, how to inspire the heart and the mind, how to direct the sincerity of our actions in the physical world. Our humanness is one and the same with that of the earth, and the earth community, where we are given two clear paths – 1) “life and the good” or 2) “death and evil.” (30:15) The way of the Torah is the way of life and that is a choice that fights for the health of the earth.
As Moshe gathered the people of Israel, we read that they were “standing firm” (29:9) – together. We have an obligation to stand strong as a community and support one another in the path of life. Central to this idea is a concept known as arvut, which means “responsibility.” This is a concept that is held in relation to social equality. The parashah begins by listing people from all different walks of life, from all different social positions – each with different roles. And the emphasis is on “full participation of all the people – women and men from all segments of the community – in the ceremony that establishes the covenant between [Hashem] and Israel.” Within the academic field of Religion and Ecology, there is an ongoing discussion about the relationship between ecological justice and social justice. This is because degrees of environmental impacts correlate to socio-economic gradients. And this can manifest in a number of ways. For example, a majority of the people most severely impacted by the effects of climate change are the poor and those in underprivileged communities. A disproportionate amount of these people are in the Third World where sea level rise, drought, and famine have already presented very serious challenges. Social justice is an important precept for the way we approach ecological progress and a shared sensitivity for the earth. The inclusiveness of all people, from all walks of life, from all different social strata is a “unique feature of the Moab covenant.” It is testament to the idea that our earthly path is a path of synergy, unity, and affinity for all peoples that stand together in defense of life. On the last day of his life, before the Jewish people are set to enter the Land, Moshe brings together everyone to emphasize the importance of responsibility. And, perhaps, this was to impress – just one last time – how equality is a critical vehicle of justice.
In Parashat Vayelech, which is the shortest portion in the Torah, the mitzvah of Hakhel is given. Hakhel means “gather;” every seven years on the first day of Chol HaMoed (the Intermediate Days of Sukkot), the entire People of Israel were commanded to gather at the Holy Temple to listen to the king read from Sefer Devarim – the Book of Deuteronomy. This was to be done on the first year of the Shmita cycle, so immediately after the Sabbatical Year. Traditionally, this was a practice that was done to bring everyone together to hear Torah and “read it as a national affirmation” of its principles. But I’d like to highlight the significance of Hakhel after the sabbatical year. It’s no coincidence that the people were commanded to come together during a harvest festival after the land is allowed to rest. During this period, the earth – and creation – is given the opportunity to renew itself. And we, too, must renew our minds and our collective intentions with the new cycle. Traditionally, Hakhel is meant to reaffirm the centrality of the Torah in the life of the Jewish people. But in doing so, we must – once again – stand together. This year, this Rosh Hashanah, we enter into the year 5781 – the sixth year of the Shmita cycle. So, next year (5782) is the Sabbatical Year. This is a wonderful time to start thinking about agricultural rest as a precursor for environmental change. Shmita is a sabbatical law but it’s also a consciousness – a conceptual reality that’s there even when we think we’re absent from it. So, ask yourself what you can do in preparation for the Sabbatical Year to help create the ecological conditions that honor unity, equality, and life: the way of the Torah.
Thank you all for listening. I wish you all a sweet and happy new year. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.
Topics Include: Selichot and the New Year for the Animals, responsibility and standing together as a community, Shmita and an ecological consciousness
Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.
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