Our two Torah portions this Shabbat — Nitzavim and Vayeilech — are related but different. They are linked in their narrative arc, yet bring different lessons to light.
Nitzavim refers to all of the Israelites standing together in stillness and solemnity, whereas Vayeilech is from the Hebrew root word to go, or to walk.
For us, too, all these years later, we find ourselves enveloped in moments of stillness, of listening, of contemplation … all so that we can find better paths on which to walk forward as Rosh Hashanah guides us into another year.
The opening of Nitzavim finds the Israelites on the precipice of completing their journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Through Moses, God reminds the people again how they are to conduct themselves: How they are to live their lives, raise their children, treat their neighbor, celebrate the festivals, mourn their losses and express their gratitude.
When you reach the land, I promise you, that I promised your ancestors — God tells them, again and again … and again — here is how you are to conduct yourselves. This is what I want you to do, how I want you to live your lives, raise your children, treat each other, give thanks, etc.
On the one hand, it’s an exhilarating, highly anticipated point of arrival. On the other hand, it’s a moment of relinquishing a way of being that had brought them this far. It was one thing to attain entry into Canaan. But what about maintaining their adherence to God’s mitzvot, and to the values meant to shape their lives?
How would they remember, and follow through, on all it was going to take for them to sustain themselves? Would they remain God’s am segulah — a treasured people — without the imminence of God’s presence in the wilderness? Would they be able to take care of themselves and each other now, the way God had always taken care of them?
Were they truly ready?
Or from the messiness of the real, would they find themselves longing for their past — one that they now imagined as ideal?
The words of Nitzavim anticipate these very human fears. The Israelites are reminded — at the very moment they need to hear it most — that they are not alone in assuming the awesome responsibilities ahead of them. While each individual may be flawed or wounded, taken together they are more than the sum of their parts. The strengths of each person — from woodchopper to water carrier to tribal leader — are important and will find a place in the great work ahead.
What’s more, the Israelites are told, all you are to do and be is within your reach. As the Torah puts it so beautifully, “Lo bashamayim hi” — it [the Torah] is not in the heavens. Keeping God’s covenant, being the best and most ethical people you know how to be, is not high in the heavens or out across the sea. You need no intermediary; these capabilities are already part of you.
You are in just the right place, at just the right time, to receive all you have worked and waited for.
As we think about our own goals, hopes and milestones — and all the feelings that go along with them — let’s take some time between this Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur (when this Torah reading will find us again), to think about what we want to do … where we most want to go next. What might it mean for us, in a world as fraught as this one, to commit ourselves anew to choosing blessing, and life?
May the days ahead provide us all with opportunities for contemplating the places we’re hurt, the responsibilities we have neglected and the ways we hope to change. Let us also pause to appreciate what we are proud of, and what we have begun to repair. There is a place for that, too.
The charge of Nitzavim-Vayeilech is as true now as it was then. It is not up in the heavens or beyond the sea. It is all very close to us. It is in our minds and in our hearts. We can do it.