Here on Earth: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)


“The Torah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven … it is something that is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).

A great illustration of this passage is contained in the Yiddish story by I.L. Peretz titled “If Not Higher.” In this story, a skeptical Jew of Lithuanian descent is determined to disprove the holiness of the Rebbe of Nemirov as part of his plan to defeat the Chasidic movement, and prove that these “holy men” are nothing but frauds. He chooses the Rebbe of Nemirov because his followers have the most outlandish belief about their rebbe. They believe that during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the rebbe ascends to heaven to plead with God on their behalf.

A skeptic follows the rebbe before dawn and watches as he dons peasant clothes, chops a tree into firewood and carries the load on his back to a broken-down shack. An elderly, homebound woman opens the door and the rebbe proceeds to make a fire in the woman’s wood stove. As he stacks the wood, the rebbe whispers the High Holy Day prayer.

The rebbe’s act of charity and compassion persuades the skeptic to become one of his greatest disciples. Later, when the former skeptic is asked if his rebbe really goes to heaven during the Ten Days of Repentance, the skeptic replies, “If not higher!”

So often we believe that by following prescription, we can achieve the greatest spiritual heights. We convince ourselves that the way to piety, spiritual growth and amazing heights of inspiration is “ascending to heaven,” meditation, absorption in prayer and spiritual devotion. While all these are blessed and beautiful paths, sometimes the most spiritual path is the one that is not about us at all.

The Rebbe of Nemirov ascended to the highest spiritual heights by demonstrating the spiritual essence of the Holy Days: Torah is not in heaven, Torah is here on earth. And what is the essence of Torah? As Rabbi Akiba famously stated, “Love thy fellow as thyself. This is the totality of Torah.”

Our dedication to this principle is one of the ways that we are judged during the Days of Awe. Did we live a year looking out for ourselves? Or did we live a year dedicated to helping one another? Did we aspire only to our own spiritual and material benefit or did we also seek the betterment of others?

The Torah is lofty in vision and idealism, but also grounded here on earth. The Torah is not in heaven, it is here, in the messy, imperfect world that God placed us here to fix.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the director of JConnect and Jewlicious as well as the author of the forthcoming book “Prayers for Israel.” He also appears in “On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From the Five Books of Moses” (Blackbird Books, 2012).

Life at a Standstill


The recent tragic hurricanes in the South have been difficult to watch. One of the more difficult chapters of this saga was when the mayor of New Orleans, in his zeal to rebuild the city as quickly as possible, called upon the residents to return to certain sections of the city. But then Hurricane Rita came, and all the plans to rebuild were put on hold. With the new storm, all the dreams for a brighter future were quickly dashed and deflated, and the good citizens of New Orleans were only demoralized further.

This is a metaphor for life. Sometimes, especially after a major setback, we so desperately want to pick up the pieces and go on to the next episode, we fail to properly repair all the levees that broke and caused the tragedy in the first place. Unless we properly fortify and repair the breaches that caused failure, we are only setting ourselves up for further failure and disaster.

The parsha we read on the last Shabbat of the year is Nitzavim. It means “standing still.” It describes how Moses addressed the standing and attentive crowd of Jews who came to hear him and enter into a new covenant with God before entering the land of Israel.

By contrast, the very next parsha, the one we will read on the first Shabbat of the new Jewish year, is called Vayelech, which means “moving.” It describes how Moses took it upon himself to travel to all the Israelite camps, so that he could address them one more time before his death.

Life is filled with “standing still” and “moving.” The key is to know when to apply each one.

If we study the respective themes of Nitzavim and Vayelech, we find they are completely different. The main theme of Nitzavim is teshuvah, repentance: “And it shall be, that when all these things — the blessing and curse — befall you, then you will turn into your heart … and you will return to God and listen to His voice….”

By contrast, the theme of Vayelech is Moses giving charge to Joshua and the rest of Israel to “Hazak Ve’Ematz!” — “Be strong and courageous!” Go out and conquer Eretz Israel, carry the Torah scroll with you wherever you go. Write it and spread the word of Torah throughout Israel.

If we were to categorize these themes, we could say that Nitzavim is all about rectifying the bad, and that Vayelech is all about doing good in the world. Before we can be strong and courageous and conquer the brave new world, we must first rectify the flaws within ourselves through teshuvah. The only way to succeed in moving forward is to first make sure that the breaches have been repaired.

Man’s normal mode of operation is to get caught up in the daily routines of life. Most of us don’t leave ourselves any time in the day to make a heshbon hanefesh — a serious and honest reckoning of who we are and what we need to do in life to become more Godly. That’s why Moses said to the Jews, “Stand still!” — stop whatever you’re doing and think for a minute about the real purpose of life. This pause for reflection is a necessary component of teshuvah.

Only after we’ve properly stood still — Nitzavim — can we pick up and start

really moving — Vayelech — toward a productive end of being strong and courageous like Moses and conquering the world at our feet.

Before we rush into the New Year and the High Holidays, it’s a good idea to pause and take spiritual inventory of this past year. Let’s remember all that has befallen us, all the decisions we’ve made and the differences between where we were a year ago and where we are today. It’s hard work, because an honest assessment of our lives can be painful — the picture isn’t always pretty. But only after careful contemplation, will we be ready to move forward and tackle the new year and all its challenges.

Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, and is director of synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.