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.