You stand upright this day, all of you, before the L‑rd your G‑d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers and all the men of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water (Deuteronomy 29:9–10)
The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells the story of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who fell ill and was at the brink of death when his father’s prayers brought him back to life. When he came to, his father asked him: “My son, what did you see (in heaven)?” Rav Yosef replied: “I saw an upside-down world. Those who are on top here are on the bottom there; and those who are here regarded as lowly are exalted in heaven.”
That the leader or the sage is superior to the wood-hewer or the water-carrier is only from our earthbound perspective, which sees a “hierarchy” of roles. But when “you all stand before G‑d,” there is no higher and lower—what seems “low” here is no less lofty and significant in G‑d’s eyes.
Like the various organs and limbs of a body, each of which complements, serves and fulfills all the others, so too the Jewish people: the simple “wood-hewer” or “water-carrier” contributes something to each and every one of his fellow Jews, including the most exalted “head.”
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
Our sages have said: “All Israel are guarantors for each other” (Talmud, Shevuot 39a). But a person cannot serve as a guarantor unless he is more resourceful in some way than the one he is guaranteeing. For example, a poor man obviously would not be accepted as a guarantor for a rich man’s loan. So if the Talmud says that all Jews serve as guarantors to each other, this means that in every Jew there is a quality in which he or she is superior to all others.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
“This day” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we all stand in judgment before G‑d. (The Torah reading of Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.)
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
It is written (Psalms 79:1): “A song by Asaf: Alien nations have entered Your estate, they have defiled Your Holy Temple, they have laid Jerusalem in ruins . . .”
Should not the verse have said “A weeping by Asaf,” “a wail by Asaf,” “a lament by Asaf”? Why does it say “A song by Asaf”?
But this is analogous to a king who built a nuptial home for his son, and had it beautifully plastered, inlaid and decorated. Then this son strayed off to an evil life. So the king came to the nuptial canopy, tore down the tapestries and broke the rails. Upon which the prince’s tutor took a flute and began to play. Those who saw him asked: “The king is overturning the nuptial canopy of his son, and you sit and sing?” Said he to them: “I am singing because the king overturned his son’s nuptial canopy, and did not vent his wrath upon his son.”
So, too, was asked of Asaf: “G‑d destroyed the Temple and the Sanctuary, and you sit and sing?” Replied he: “I am singing because G‑d vented His wrath upon wood and stone, and did not vent his wrath upon Israel.”
(Eichah Rabbah 4:15)
The Melech HaMoshiach (“anointed king”) is destined to arise and restore the kingdom of David to its glory of old, to its original sovereignty. He will build the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his times, all laws (of the Torah) will be reinstated as before; the sacrifices will be offered, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year instituted, as outlined in the Torah.
Whoever does not believe in him, or does not anticipate his coming, denies not only the other prophets, but also the Torah and Moses. For the Torah testifies about him: “G‑d shall return your captivity and have compassion upon you, and He will return and gather you from all the nations amongst whom the L‑rd your G‑d has scattered you. If your outcasts shall be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the L‑rd your G‑d gather you, from there He will take you. . . . G‑d will bring you . . .” These explicit words of the Torah encapsulate all that has been said [regarding Moshiach] by the prophets . . .
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:1)
The events prophesied in this chapter are still destined to be fulfilled, as they had not yet been realized in the days of the the First Temple, nor in the days of the Second Temple; it is the sum of our comfort and our hope, and the cure for all our troubles.
The Hebrew word used here for “he will return” is not veheishiv—which means “he will bring back”—but veshav, which literally means “he will come back.” Our sages learned from this that the Divine Presence resides among Israel, as it were, in all the misery of their exile, and when the Jews are redeemed, G‑d speaks of it as His own redemption— He Himself returns along with Israel’s exiles.
Another interpretation: The day on which Israel’s exiles will be gathered is so monumental and difficult, that it is as though G‑d Himself must literally take each individual Jew with His very hands out of his place. Thus the verse says “You will be gathered up, one by one, O children of Israel” (Isaiah 27:12). We find this also regarding the exiles from the other nations, as the verse says, “I shall return the exiles of Egypt” (Ezekiel 29:14).
It a kindness that G‑d did to Israel, that He scattered them amongst the nations. . . . Does a person then sow a measure of grain, if not to harvest many measures? So too, the people of Israel were exiled amongst the nations only so that converts be added to them . . .
(Talmud, Pesachim 87b)
The “converts” of which the Talmud speaks refer not only to the non-Jews who joined the community of Israel in the course of their exile, but also to the “sparks of holiness” contained within the physical creation, which are redeemed and elevated when a Jew utilizes the resources he or she comes in contact with, in every part of the world, towards a good and G‑dly purpose.
(The Chassidic Masters)
From the time of the creation of the universe, man had the choice to be righteous or wicked. So it was for the entire duration of the Torah, in order that there be merit for us in choosing good and punishment for desiring evil. But in the days of Moshiach choosing good will be in our nature, and the heart will not lust for that which is not proper for it, and will have no desire for it at all. This is the “circumcision” spoken of here, as lust is a “foreskin” blocking the heart, and the “circumcision of the heart” is the removal of lust. In those times man will return to what he was before Adam’s sin, when he naturally did what is proper to do, and there were no conflicts and contradictions in his will . . .
This is the meaning of what our sages said, interpreting the verse (Ecclesiastes 12:1) “There shall come days of which you shall say: I have no desire in them”—“These are the days of Moshiach, in which there is neither merit nor guilt” (Talmud, Shabbat 151b). For in the days of Moshiach there will be no desire [of evil], annd thus no merit or guilt—since merit and guilt are both the products of a free will.
If it were in heaven, you would be required to climb up there and learn it.
(Talmud, Eruvin 55a)
[An oven] that was cut into parts and sand was placed between the parts, Rabbi Eliezer maintained that it is pure (i.e., not susceptible to ritual impurity). The other sages said that it is susceptible to ritual impurity . . .
On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say, 400 cubits. Said they to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”
Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it.” The water in the aqueduct began to flow backwards. Said they to him: “One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct.”
Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, the may walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant.
Said he said to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer—the law is as he says . . .”
Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “The Torah is not in heaven!” . . . We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.’”
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a–b)
Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands . . .
This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: “See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]” and “See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse].” . . . For were G‑d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, of if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed . . . how could G‑d command us through the prophets “do this” and “do not do this” . . . ? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous . . . ?
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1–3)
How is it fitting to love G‑d?
A person should love G‑d with such great and powerful intensity that his soul is bound in this love and is constantly pursuing it, as one, for example, who is smitten with lovesickness—as one who is so obsessed with a carnal love that his mind is never free of desire for that woman. . . . Even more so is the love of G‑d in the hearts of those who love Him . . .
This is what King Solomon meant when he said by way of metaphor, “For I am sick with love.” Indeed, the entire Song of Songs is a metaphor for this concept . . .
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 10:3)
It was a hot July day during the summer of 1866. The children of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, five-year-old Sholom DovBer and his brother Zalman Aharon, had just come home from cheder and were playing in the garden which adjoined their home.
In the garden stood a trellis overgrown with vines and greenery which offered protection from the heat of the sun. It was set up as a study, with a place for books, etc., and the rebbe would sit there on the hot summer days.
The children were debating the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. Zalman Aharon, the elder by a year and four months, argued that the Jews are a “wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6) who could, and do, study lots of Torah, both its revealed part and its mystical secrets, and pray with devotion and d’veikut (“attachment” to G‑d).
Said the young Sholom DovBer: “But this is true only of those Jews who learn and pray. What of Jews who are unable to study and who do not pray with d’veikut? What is their specialness over a non-Jew?”
Zalman Aharon did not know what to reply.
The children’s sister Devorah Leah ran to tell their father of their argument. Rabbi Shmuel called them to the trellis, and sent the young Sholom DovBer to summon Bentzion, a servant in the rebbe’s home.
Bentzion was a simple Jew who read Hebrew with many mispronunciations and barely understood the easy words of the prayers. Every day he would recite the entire book of Psalms, pray with the congregation, and make sure to be present in the synagogue when Ein Yaakov was studied.
When the servant arrived, the rebbe asked him: “Bentzion, did you eat?”
The Rebbe: “Did you eat well?”
Bentzion: “What’s well? Thank G‑d, I was sated.”
The Rebbe: “And why do you eat?”
Bentzion: “So that I may live.”
The Rebbe: “But why live?”
Bentzion: “To be a Jew and do what G‑d wants.” The servant sighed.
The Rebbe: “You may go. Send me Ivan the coachman.”
Ivan was a gentile who had grown up among Jews from early childhood and spoke a perfect Yiddish.
When the coachman arrived, the rebbe asked him: “Did you eat today?”
“Did you eat well?”
“And why do you eat?”
“So that I may live.”
“But why live?”
“To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat,” replied the coachman.
“You may go,” said the rebbe.
(From the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn)