The Hebrew month of Elul invites us into a period of preparatory self-reflection and contemplation, calling us to center our thoughts on our own t'shuvah. Elul culminates in the observance of S'lichot, a time of penitential prayer and meditation when we ready ourselves for the spiritual labor of the Days of Awe. This observance (which will occur on this Shabbat) guides us toward an examination of our inner selves and, in turn, provides a foretaste of the High Holy Days themselves.
This week brings a preview of another sort as well. Our scheduled Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim/Vayeilech, offers a bit of textual foreshadowing: its words contain the Torah reading we will hear in our synagogues on Yom Kippur morning. The words of the portion are already familiar to many of us:
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God-you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer-to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day . . . not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).
When we read these words, we draw comfort from their inclusiveness and from the charitable impulse of the biblical text. God's covenant belongs not merely to the wise or the influential, Deuteronomy asserts, but to every member of our community regardless of age, gender, or social station; its expansiveness extends even to include the countless generations yet to come. This instinct toward outreach is a tonic for Jews who have felt excluded or overlooked by their religious community. The Torah portion reminds all of us: the covenant includes you, too. What we frequently overlook, however, is that our willingness to extend the boundaries of covenant for the sake of inclusion and universalism necessarily entails demands as well as social rewards.
Immediately after his generous pronouncement, Moses directs his subsequent comments to certain unspecified listeners in the crowd. He begins: "Perchance there is among you some man or woman . . . whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God . . ." (29:17). Moses speaks directly to those people who are included under the wide tent of God's covenant but who, even at this momentous time of communal and religious connection, feel that they do not belong. Although they know intellectually that they are included in the covenant, they feel themselves, even at a time of profound unity and sanctity, slipping away from the faith and people of Israel.
Moreover (and this is Moses's chief concern), these disenfranchised Israelites have come to believe that because they are not at home in their religious community, their wayward hearts are not a true liability to it. Moses goes on, giving voice to those in the crowd who remain abashedly silent: "He may fancy himself immune, thinking, 'I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart' . . ." (29:18). These marginalized Israelites believe that God will overlook their infidelity (reasoning, perhaps, that God will ignore their sin just as the community ignored their physical presence). But Moses insists that this mistaken point of view will lead the entire community, not only the one who holds it, to "utter ruin" (29:18). His insistence exposes the gripping paradox of our parashah: we are so moved by the inclusiveness of its prologue that we may overlook the fact that the more broadly the covenant is applied, the broader the sweep of God's expectation for all Israel.
This realization dampens the charitable way we normally read this parashah, but it also provides us with a profoundly relevant perspective as we near S'lichot and the High Holy Days. Moses's words chill us when we reflect on the sense (one that, unquestionably, all of us have had) that we can remain religiously anonymous, hoping the offenses we have committed against God and against each other will pass unnoticed. Moses does not name the doubting Israelites, but we all know: he is talking about us.
Deuteronomy does not allow us to squirm away from its stern words of warning. We cannot lull ourselves into believing that the process of t'shuvah and the demands of the Days of Awe apply only to others. Everyone who is included in the preamble of Deuteronomy 29-men and women, young and old-is also called to account for how we uphold our obligations to God and to our fellow human beings.
Now we can begin to understand the significance (and look past the seeming redundancy) of why we read from Parashat Nitzavim/Vayeilech this week and again so soon on Yom Kippur. This is a portion rooted in the broadest possible understanding of Jewish covenant. It asserts that whether or not we like it, whether or not we feel embraced or fulfilled by our Judaism, we remain a part of Am Yisrael. Our parashah teaches that God is intimately acquainted with every Jew's most intimate and secret inner life (see 29:28 and 31:21); its inspiring message of universal Jewish inclusion comes alongside a sobering reminder of universal Jewish responsibility.
It is precisely such a moment of awakening-in which we see clearly who we are and what is expected of us-that our preparations at this time of year aspire toward. The clarity of this realization returns to us again in the imposing and inspiring pronouncement of S'lichot: Ki Anu amecha, v'Atah malkeinu, "We are Your people, and You are our Sovereign." Properly considered t'shuvah emerges from our recognition of God's bountiful covenant and of the demands it makes from us as Jews.
During these final days of Elul, our partnership in the covenant of Israel both buoys us up and weighs us down. We live in hope that God will deal mercifully with us, but feel trepidation about the reality that we have failed to meet God's expectations. Nevertheless, if we are faithful and serious, we will see that living in covenant means we are not alone-in either our hope or in our despair. This is the promise with which our parashah finally ends. Its words assure us that we never need to feel isolated, regardless of the fear or alienation that may have attended us through the year now ending. Holiness is all around us, and it surrounds us like an embrace when we sense the nearness of God and the nearness of each other. Judaism's promise of inclusion opens wide at this time of repentance, and through it we can be drawn into the arms of our community and back under the shelter of the people Israel.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel in Seattle, Washington. He serves on the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ
Included in the Torah portion Vayeilech, one of the two portions read this week, is the public transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua. It is not uncommon to analyze the leadership styles of these two figures for insights into positive-and not so positive-leadership traits. But in retelling the movement from one leader to the other, it is possible to glean insight on the traits necessary for a successful leadership transition.
The expression "Be strong and resolute" is used three times in Deuteronomy, chapter 31 (appearing in Hebrew as chizku v'imtzu [31:6] and chazak ve-ematz [31:7, 23). This The phrase is first used is in Deuteronomy 31:6 when Moses commands the Israelite people to be strong and resolute as they enter the Promised Land under Joshua's leadership, and immediately engage in battle to dispossess the current inhabitants. In this instance, the expression takes the form of a "you can do it" speech from a coach. The task ahead is formidable, but with courage and confidence, the people of Israel will defeat the other nations.
The second occurrence of this expression is in the following verse where Moses again proffers this command, but this time, exclusively to Joshua. In front of the entire community Moses passes the yoke of leadership on to the new generation. "Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land . . ." (31:7). Here the same words are being used not merely to encourage Joshua, but also to force him to confront the weight of the responsibility he is accepting.
The third use of this phrase, and the only other place it is used in the Torah, is in verse 23 when God speaks directly to Joshua saying, "Be strong and resolute for you shall bring the Israelites into the land . . . and I will be with you." This is language of comfort. Yes, a huge responsibility has been handed to Joshua, but Joshua is not alone. God will be with Joshua as he leads the people into the Promised Land.
The use of this specific Hebrew expression marks three important needs in leadership transition: the need for the members of the community to believe in the new leader and in themselves, the need for the new leader to understand the weight of his/her responsibilities, and the need for the new leader to be supported. Chazak ve-ematz! May this model help us all be strong and resolute in the face of leadership changes.
Beth Ellen Young, RJE, is the director of education at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida.
Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546-1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386-1,394;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250