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Torah Studies: Nitzavim

Torah Studies: Nitzavim


Nitzavim is the Sidra invariably read before Rosh Hashanah, and it begins with Moses’ address to the Jewish people, “You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd your G‑d….” This invocation is both general and specific. It mentions the individual classes of Jew, from the “heads (of) your tribes” to the “drawer of your water.” And it gathers them all into the collective phrase, “all of you.” The following Sicha is drawn from two Rosh Hashanah letters by the Rebbe. The first half concerns the relation of the individual to the community, and asks whether the Torah, in seeking the unity of the Jewish people, demands the sacrifice of individuality. The second half concerns those Jews who still live in areas of political oppression, where they are prevented from living out their faith, and asks: What can we learn from their example?

1. The Individual and the Community

The Sidra of Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, and constitutes a preparation for it.

The Torah addresses itself to every Jew in these words, “You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd your G‑d: Your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, even all the men of Israel… from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”1

This is in itself something of a contradiction. The verse begins by speaking to Israel as a unity—“You are standing… all of you”—without making any distinctions. But immediately afterwards, it proceeds to detail the different classes of Jew separately. Why, in any case, did it need to do so, when the phrase “all of you” already encompasses them all?

It did so in order to make a fundamental point:2 that on the one hand, there must be unity amongst Jews; and, at the same time, each has his unique contribution to make, his own individual mission.

But, if there have to be distinctions amongst Jews, especially ones as extreme as that between “your heads” and “the drawer of your water,” how can there be true unity amongst them?

The verse supplies its own answer: “You are standing today, all of you before the L-rd your G‑d.” It is as Jews stand before G‑d in the full recognition that He is the author of their powers3 and the ground of their being, that they are one.

This can be seen by a simple example. When men form a group of community for a specific purpose; economic, intellectual or whatever, they share their money or labor or ideas towards a given end and for a specified time. Outside this partnership they remain separate individuals, each with his own private world.

The community of Israel is not like this. For it is a partnership “before the L-rd your G‑d” and its purpose is “that you should enter into the covenant of the L-rd your G‑d, and into His oath….” This encompasses the whole man4—not just his labor or his ideas—each according to his capacity. And it is a partnership in perpetuity, as eternal as the Torah. This is true unity.

Moreover, in the efforts of each Jew playing his unique part in the covenant, is implicit the work of the whole community. The unity of Israel is created not by every Jew being the same, but by his being himself in fulfilling directives of “the L-rd your G‑d.” Israel is one before G‑d when, and only when, each Jew fulfills the mission which is his alone.

2. The Hour and the Task

There is a clear message in this, and one that needs emphasis in our time, concerning the “heads (of)5 your tribes,” the spiritual leaders of the Jewish world, from the heads of communities to the heads of families.

Should the objection be raised that at the present time and in our given circumstances, it is hard for a Jew to keep his Judaism intact, without compromise, throughout the year, the Torah itself answers, “You are standing today.” This is not a command or a prediction or a promise. It is stated as a fact. The fact is that every Jew stands before G‑d, who is his life and his strength. The duty is to bring this fact into the open, from the potential to the actual.

And with the assurance implicit in these words, each Jew, and all Jews, come to the coronation, as it were, of G‑d on Rosh Hashanah, the acceptance of His sovereignty and the proclamation of His kingship over Israel, and over all the world.

3. Promise or Fact

It is their first duty, especially in this period of the Days of Awe, to spread the light of Torah and the commandments to all who come within their sphere of influence. They must make their inspiration felt in the tenor of everyday life, in practical deed. And to those groups who are, at the moment, far from contact with Judaism, they have a duty to create in them a feeling for return to the roots of their identity, and for beginning to live as complete Jews, with complete Judaism, for the complete year.

Sadly, this, the best opportunity of the year, is often missed, and the time spent instead in talking about world problems, which for all their importance are not within the sphere of influence of the speaker or his listeners, who are not at all likely to help solve them. It is particularly sad that, instead of using these moments of Jewish spiritual awakening to reinforce the Jewish community in its all-inclusive and eternal covenant with G‑d and to strengthen individual Jews in their personal missions of G‑d Himself, the time and energy is set aside for world problems, political discussion and other matters inappropriate to the occasion.

4. The Foot That Leads the Head

There is another point implicit in the verse, “You are standing today….” Although it distinguishes the various kinds of Jew from the “head” to the “foot” of the communal body, it must be remembered—as the Alter Rebbe pointed out6—that the “foot” sometimes plays the role of the “head.” For, to follow the metaphor, although the head contains the brain which directs the whole body, it is the feet which take the body (including the head) from place to place. So spiritually it can sometimes be the “drawer of your water” who serves as the example for the “heads (of) your tribes.”

The characteristic of the head is that it is the seat of the mind, the intellect. The foot, however, responds to the brain’s instruction; its feature is, as it were, obedience, immediate fulfillment of an imperative. How then can the “drawer of your water”—the simple Jew with his obedient, unmeditated faith—be an example to the intellectual leaders of the community? He may be gifted with neither the chance nor the capacity for studying Torah; the victim of the constraints of nature or circumstance. What does he have that can serve as the model for those who are more fortunately placed?

And this raises in turn a further question. It is G‑d Himself who has given the instruction and the imperative to each individual Jew as to how he should conduct his daily life. How then can it be that certain Jews do not have the opportunity to live as G‑d wishes them to? For He is the Master of the Universe. And yet there are situations in which Jews, despite their desire, despite even their self-sacrifice, are barred from living a Jewish life in its proper fullness. A person can sacrifice himself by jumping off a roof to the ground. He cannot do so by jumping from the ground to the roof. It may be beyond his powers to raise himself from his enforced depths. How can such oppression be tolerated by G‑d?

5. The Act and the Desire

The answer, in brief, is this. It is true that the deed is more important than the sentiment. The intention is not enough without the act. But still, feelings and intentions are significant. And when it happens that a Jew cannot act as he wishes, even by the greatest self-sacrifice, this creates in him a profound sense of grief and loss, a feeling so deep as to touch the very essence of his soul. And this leads him to a deep attachment to G‑d, His Torah and His commandments, such that without this grief his Judaism could never have meant so much to him. In such a situation, not only is he without blame for failing to fulfill G‑d’s will, but he is rewarded for his desires even though they did not become deeds. And, more importantly, his spiritual life achieves a depth of perfection to which he in more fortunate circumstances, could perhaps not aspire. Furthermore, when by the grace of G‑d he is able to leave that situation for one which grants him religious freedom, his performance of the Mitzvot takes on an unprecedented fervor and intensity.

It is thus that such a “drawer of your water” becomes a model for the “head,” and for all Jews, so that those who have been spared the “iron furnace” of affliction can learn and draw inspiration from him.

6. Real and Imaginary Impossibility

But there is an important point which must be made clear. The temptations by which we allow ourselves to be led astray are sometimes very subtle. And the strongest of these is self-deception and self-love. One of its commoner strategies is when we convince ourselves that we cannot perform a Mitzvah.We would like to—we tell ourselves—but circumstances prevent us. We shift the burden of responsibility from ourselves to factors beyond our control.

“Man is close to himself” and it is difficult for him to see himself objectively. He must therefore remember that in the seemingly impossible, there may be more of what he wants to see than what is there, objectively, to be seen. To understand the real nature of his situation he must turn to someone else, someone who is above self-deception and will not be tempted to say only what he wants to hear; someone above all, whose whole outlook is that of the Torah, for Torah is “Torat Emet” (a Torah of truth), and truth brooks no compromise. Only he can distinguish for one the constraints which are genuine from those which one has erected for himself as an escape from responsibility.

This is the time of the year—the Ten Days of Teshuvah—when the Jew “returns” to his essential self7 when the masks of self-deception are broken. And this essential self—that he is a veritable part of G‑d above8—expresses itself in all details of his daily life, in thought, speech and deed.

(Source: Letters, end of 5731, beg. of 5732)

Cf. Likkutei Torah, beg. of Nitzavim.
Cf. Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, ch. 5.
“…all of you” in the sense of “the whole of you,” i.e., all of your being.
Rashi, ad loc.
Likkutei Torah, beg. of Nitzavim.
Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Gerushin, end of ch. 2.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 2.
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Gerald NYC September 16, 2017

Why are there dots above some of the letters in this portion Reply

Anonymous w September 21, 2011

promise of fact It is nice to focus on self and spirituality during Elul when the opportunity for closeness to Hashem is greatest, and at the same time to not be so concerned about world affairs.

The fact is that it is not true. Presently, there is a UN vote imminent/close to us. 50 % of our thoughts, words and actions should be devoted to influencing where possible the outcome of the vote.

With all due respect. Reply

Gavriel Silverstein Chicago, IL/USA October 3, 2008

The heart is what links the finite to The Infinite... ...not the other way around. A heathen can eat matzah on Passover, he can use it as the bread for a pork sandwich if he wants, but there is no link to G-d that will come of it - that act alone does not constitute a mitzvah. Meanwhile a wrongfully imprisoned Chasid on the other side of town, denied the matzah by jailhouse rules, but yearning to fulfill the mitzvah, singing tehilim to the Holy One, blessed by He - that man is connected to his Creator. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar, October 2, 2008

Re: G-d sees the heart Most certainly, both the deed and the sentiment are needed. A complete Mitzvah has both aspects. But what happens if only one exists? Are you left with anything?

Suppose an individual meditates upon the mystical dimension of the Matzah on the night of Passover without actually eating the Matzah. Has anything been accomplished?

Now suppose a hungry individual eats some Matzah the night of the Seder, barely realizing what's entering his mouth. The Mitzvah has been done.

We should indeed strive for both. The emotions are the wings that make our Mitzvot soar. But take away the deed and you're left with a feeling of a finite individual. Take away the sentiment, and the Mitzvah - the bridge connecting the finite with the infinite - still exists...

For more on the importance of the deed, see Tanya, Chapter Four. Reply

antonio byrd September 25, 2008

edification Thank you so very much for allowing me to listen in to such beautiful conversations and teachings about G-d and His Torah. It seems that your lessons on Spiritual Growth, and the Unity of the Earth with the Heavens are manna for me. I am glad to see that there is some genuine Overstanding in the Earth, and I pray that our Lord Blesses and Keeps those of us who truly thirst to understand our Oneness with our creator. Have a Happy New Year!! Reply

Gavriel Silverstein Chicago, IL/USA September 24, 2008

G-d sees the heart The article states: "the deed is more important than the sentiment". This is not the case. As it is written, G-d sees the heart. It is the heart that one is judged for first and foremost, not the deed. Many of the words of the prophets confirm this and stress it, such as Isaiah in 29:13 who sums up well the worship by rote as created by man, which certainly is the "deed" but if not done from the heart (the "sentiment") it is meaningless to HaShem, in fact it's an insult to Him.

As it is written elsewhere about honoring Him with one's mouth but not with one's heart, empty action is one of HaShem most despised issues with Jews.

This should not be confused with or twisted into the falacy of Christianity's best known writer/prosthelitizer who suggested the deed was irrelevant. In fact those with a heart for G-d will always seek out the opportunity to manifest that in the deed, by which sentiment is perfected. Reply

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