As we said previously,1 in the third and final section of the Book of Deuteronomy Moses summarizes the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. After having discussed the consequences of honoring and violating the terms of this covenant in parashat Tavo, he focuses on its essential nature in the following two parashiot, Nitzavim and Vayeilech.

For the public reading of the Torah on the Sabbath, these two parashiot are, in most years, read together. In fact, according to some opinions, they are actually one parashah, which is only occasionally split into two.2 Their common theme, as we said, is the covenant: Parashat Nitzavim focuses on God’s side of this covenant, while parashat Vayeilech focuses on the Jewish people’s side.

This difference in focus is first of all reflected in the names of these two parashiot. Nitzavim means “standing” and Vayeilech means “and he walked.” The adjective “standing,” implying the maintenance of a firm and immutable posture, is most aptly applied to God, who by definition is absolute, unchanging perfection: “I am God, I have not changed.”3 The Jew, however, is intended to walk an infinite road of self-refinement, always changing. “Thus said the God of Hosts: ‘If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you also will rule My House and guard My courts, and I will enable you to walk, in contrast to these [angels,] who [only] stand stationary.’@”4


A covenant is a bond of love that transcends rationality. Even though the rational reasons that foster love may be absent at some point, the parties to the covenant agree to continue loving each other nonetheless.

The way we evoke this super-rational attitude in how God relates to us is by first evoking it in ourselves, by cultivating our love for our fellow Jews. By loving each other—even when the rational reasons that would foster such mutual love may be absent—we are manifesting our super-rational relationship with our fellow Jews. We are thus taught that loving our fellow Jew is the highest expression of our love of God. “I have loved you, says God,”5 and, in the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, “if we truly love God, we love what He loves, the Jewish people.”6

Nonetheless, the mere sentiment of love, however praiseworthy, is not enough; the sentiment must be translated into action. After all, we know God loves us no matter what and He knows we love Him likewise; what the covenant is meant to ensure is that He always treats us lovingly in response to our manifesting our love toward Him. Moses therefore enjoins us not just to love each other but to “stand together,” in unity, treating each other lovingly and functioning together as a whole. This is the preparation and prerequisite for entering into the covenantal relationship of love with God.

Hence, when Moses begins to describe the new covenant the people are about to enter into with God, he points out that its effectiveness is contingent upon all Jews uniting together: “You are all standing today before God, your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your sheriffs, every Israelite man, your young children, your womenfolk, your converts who have been accepted into your camp, your woodchoppers, and your water drawers—in order that you may enter into a covenant with God, your God….”7

How can we truly unite? After all, the Torah itself implies that there are differences between Jews: some are “your leaders” while others are “your water drawers.” What could a prestigious leader and a rank-and-file Jew possibly have in common?

The answer to this is threefold: first, who is to say who is ultimately higher on the ladder of achievement? Appearances can be deceiving, and we tend to over-evaluate ourselves while under-evaluating others. Secondly, even if we have evaluated ourselves correctly, just because we are a leader in one particular aspect of life does not mean that there are not other aspects of life in which others are leaders. In truth, “everyone is completed by his fellow”8; everyone is a leader in some way, and therefore, the perfection of the Jewish people is dependent on the inclusion of every Jew in the collective body.

Thirdly, the conceptual distance between any creature and the Creator is infinite. Thus, when we set out to evaluate ourselves in terms of our relationship with God, the profundity of our own worthlessness in the face of God’s absolute reality will neutralize any presumptions of superiority we may entertain vis-à-vis another person. We will be so overwhelmed by our own smallness that such a comparison will seem preposterous!9

When we consider these three perspectives, we can truly stand together, united, not only with feelings of love toward each other but with behavior that testifies to the truth of those feelings.


There are several levels of unity: There is the loose bond that joins us when we unite for a common cause. We remain individuals with our own private agendas, but our common devotion to a specific goal enables us to unite and act as a unit. This is a pragmatic arrangement rather than true unity, the proof being that once the goal is achieved, the union disbands.

In contrast, a true bond that results when we, as members of a group, sense that every member of the group has a unique contribution to make to all the others. This sense of mutual cross-completion impresses on each of us that we need every other individual, and that we cannot achieve our own fulfillment without them all.

Nonetheless, in such a union, each individual remains aware of himself or herself as an individual. A yet higher unity results when each individual feels as though he is part of a collective body. In a well-functioning body, not only does each limb make a unique and indispensable contribution to the well-being of every other limb; the individual limbs have no real significance outside the context of the body.

These latter two forms of unity are both essential elements of true Jewish unity. Ideally, we should both emphasize our individuality and that of our fellow Jews—our unique contribution to the whole—and surrender our individuality to our identity with the collective whole of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, in daily life, our chief emphasis is on the first of the two types of unity, for being aware of our mutual interdependence despite our individuality is a true indication that Divine consciousness has permeated even our self-awareness, our lower states of consciousness.

Furthermore, these two types of unity are themselves interdependent. Only when we operate on a day-to-day basis on the premise that we are mutually interdependent can we hope to ultimately feel like one entity. And only if we realize that ultimately we are all one entity can we realize on a day-to-day basis that we need each other.


We can now understand why it was so crucial for Moses to reiterate and review the covenantal bond between God and the Jewish people as their final preparation for entering the Land of Israel.

As we said, the covenant with God is reflected in the interdependence of the Jewish people. As they were about to cross the Jordan, it was vital that they be forged into a nation—not remaining a mere confederation of individuals united for a common purpose, but becoming a new entity, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The expression of this wholeness was the fact that every Jew became responsible for every other Jew’s observance of the Torah’s commandments, encouraging them to perform the commandments and preventing them from violating them.10 In the desert, the Jews could indulge in considering themselves individuals first and members of some vague notion of nation second. Now, as they stood poised to commence a life as a nation, this orientation had to change.

Moses therefore brought us now into the covenant with God a final time. In so doing, he imbued each one of us with the awareness that we can never be complete without all our fellow Jews, and that ultimately, we are all parts of one collective body. With this awareness, we are ready to enter the Promised Land and together transform it and the whole world into God’s home.11


Parashat Vayeilech continues the record of Moses’ address to the Jewish people on the last day of his life. In this parashah, Moses instates Joshua as his successor, finishes committing the Torah to writing, relates to the people the commandment to assemble every seven years to renew their covenant with God, and prepares them for receiving “the poem of witness” that will constitute the next parashah, Ha’azinu.

As we pointed out in the overview to parashat Nitzavim, the two parashiot of Nitzavim and Vayeilech are in most years read together in the public reading of the Torah, this fact supporting the view that they actually one parashah, which is only occasionally split into two. Together they contain the essential features of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people: parashat Nitzavim focuses on God’s side of the covenant, while parashat Vayeilech focuses on the Jewish people’s side of the covenant. Furthermore, this difference in focus is reflected in the names of the parashiot, for the word Nitzavim means “standing firm,” referring to God’s immutable essence, whereas the word Vayeilech means “and he walked,” referring to our never-ending journey of spiritual refinement.

In particular, however, Nitzavim and Vayeilech allude to the two complementary aspects of our own spiritual lives. We all have to learn how to stand firm vis-à-vis those aspects of our spiritual life that require uncompromising resolution as well as how to constantly progress vis-à-vis those aspects of our spiritual lives that require continuous change, growth, and development.

This dichotomy is evident in the Torah itself: whereas the Written Torah is a fixed, unchanging text, the Oral Torah is an ever-expanding, dynamic corpus of explanation of the Written Torah and its application to the ever-changing specificities of each generation. Even the Oral Torah itself exhibits this dichotomy, inasmuch as its constantly broadening expanse of new insights can develop only within the Torah’s own fixed guidelines that govern the derivation of such insights. This is how we understand the sages’ statement that “any new insight that a veteran student will ever derive has already been given to Moses at Sinai.”12

Similarly, the spiritual exercise of prayer exhibits both sides of this dichotomy. The obligation to pray a specific number of times every day, or in specific contexts, as well as the text of our prayers—the liturgy—is fixed. On the other hand, prayer is “the service of heart”13 and is therefore dynamic, inasmuch as the scope and intensity of our emotions are constantly changing and hopefully maturing.

Finally, religious practice—the performance of God’s commandments—also reflects this dichotomy. The number of commandments is fixed at 613, but it is always possible to improve our performance of them, both physically and spiritually, by performing them more meticulously and thoughtfully, respectively.

Thus, all three divisions of our relationship with God14—the study of the Torah, prayer, and the performance of the commandments—evince this complementary dichotomy is evident. The presence of this dichotomy in all aspects of our religious life keeps us mindful of the twin foundations of Judaism: its fixed, unchanging aspects are God speaking to us; its constantly changing and developing aspects are us responding to God.15


The dichotomy alluded to in the names of the twin parashiot of Nitzavim and Vayeilech—in addition to reflecting the two sides of Jewish observance—also expresses the opposite poles of attitude we must cultivate in order to be able to live vibrant, full spiritual lives.

On the one hand, we need to cultivate resoluteness in our commitment to fulfilling God’s will, never allowing ourselves to be swayed by social comment from without or misgivings from within. On the other hand, we must cultivate the flexibility and agility necessary to remain open to new and higher insights.

Thus, the sages teach us, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fast as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in heaven.”16 On the one hand, we are enjoined to be “bold as a leopard” and “strong as a lion” in our steadfast, unshakable commitment; on the other hand, we are enjoined to be “light as an eagle” and “fast as a deer” to fly and run quickly and nimbly from one level of Divine consciousness to the next, higher one. It is not by accident that this statement is quoted at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, which governs the daily life of every Jew.

Normally, it is hard to imagine how we can manifest both attitudes simultaneously. And indeed, Nitzavim and Vayeilech are in some years read separately, in order to reflect the phenomenon that we are not always capable of living both sides of this coin at once. But as we mature in our ongoing process of self-refinement, increasingly binding ourselves to God, who transcends all dichotomies and paradoxes, we can learn how to live both sides of this paradox at once; this is reflected in the majority of years, in which Nitzavim and Vayeilech are read together.

Nowhere is the complementary nature of these two poles of religious life so apparent as it in our relationship with the world at large. When, as is required of us, we venture out of the spiritual safety of Torah study, prayer, and personal performance of the commandments in order to refine the world and disseminate Divine consciousness, our ability to successfully “walk” (Vayeilech) in the possibly antagonistic world is directly dependent on how firmly we are rooted (Nitzavim) in the spiritual home from which we have ventured.17


It is instructive that the Torah describes our side of our covenant with God by means of the idiom of walking. Although walking is a steady, measured form of progress (as opposed to running or jumping, for example), at the same time it distances us totally from our point of origin (as opposed to standing up or growing, for example). Thus, in employing the metaphor of walking, the Torah is teaching us that our relationship with God should be characterized by progress so radical that each new step lands us in a totally different place, that our infinite “return” to Him should continually make us into new people, individuals who have left their former selves far behind.

In the overall context of the Book of Deuteronomy, which, as we have seen, is the book of teshuvah—return to God, parashat Vayeilech thus instructs us how to make teshuvah into a truly transformative experience. This is perhaps why the account of the Torah’s completion18 is found specifically in parashat Vayeilech, even though we would have expected this account to appear chronologically at the very end of the last parashah of the Torah. In order to progress to a new level of Divine consciousness, to a new level of understanding the Torah, we must first “finish the Torah” at our present level of consciousness. We are similarly taught19 that in the afterlife, in order for the soul to progress from one level of Divine consciousness to the next, it must first purge itself of the Divine consciousness it has achieved thus far, and similarly when it progresses from its newfound Divine consciousness to its next awaiting level.

This process is ongoing, and will continue until—and even after—we reach the ultimate goal of teshuvah, the restoration of the world as God’s ultimate home, with the advent of the messianic era and the final Redemption.20