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Wake up to our world, ourselves

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)


by Rabbi Anne Brener

August 31, 2010 | 6:45 pm

I am on a deck, overlooking a redwood stand. The tall trees above me, I look down on lesser vegetation. I find myself eye level with a red-headed woodpecker as I revisit the warnings and the promises of Parashat Nitzavim.

We read Nitzavim during the Hebrew month of Elul, when we awake each morning to the sound of the shofar, summoning us to the inner spiritual cleanup, preparing us for High Holy Days introspection.

In Nitzavim, Moses stands on the Plains of Moab and speaks of the consequences of human free will. With words so important that they are read again on Yom Kippur, Moses declares our options, reminding us of that our choices determine our personal and environmental destiny. He says, “I place before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Moses addresses both “those who stand here with us today ... [and] ... those not [yet] here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:14): all people in all times. I hear him today in concert with the woodpecker, drumming a coded message into a tree and his avian cohort screeching nearby. The bird sounds underline the parasha’s warnings. The urgency of the call cannot be ignored.

I will let Moses speak for the birds and the trees.

“A future generation ... your descendants ... shall see the punishment directed against the land ... they will say, ‘Sulphur and salt has burned all its soil. Nothing can be planted. Nothing can grow. ...’ All ... will ask, ‘Why did God do this to the land? Why this great anger?’ They shall answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant that God ... made with them’ “ (Deuteronomy 29:21-24).

The primeval panorama before me as I encounter Moses’ challenge brings to mind the definition of teshuvah, the High Holy Days spiritual enterprise, given by Rav Kook. Israel’s first chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Kook defined teshuvah in his book “Lights of Teshuvah” as “returning to one’s pure, original, natural state.” It “encompasses all of the transgressions against the laws of nature and ... morality.” Teshuvah is, therefore, a process of inner spiritual cleansing directing us to an outer cleanup meant to include the entire world, returning both to its native purity.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, echoes Rav Kook’s understanding of teshuvah, reminding us that the Torah instructs us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah in order to evoke the memory of the Jubilee shofar, blown once every 49 years. That Jubilee shofar blast is intended to “proclaim freedom throughout the land ... [and] ... return each person to his ancestral heritage and family” (Leviticus 25:10). This teshuvah applies both to human beings and to the land itself. The Bible states, “You shall not sow ... harvest ... [or] pick ... from the field,” allowing the land to lie fallow, returning, like the human being, to its natural state during the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:11-13).

It is crucial that we connect personal teshuvah with that of the land. We are obliged to observe the birthday of the world by examining and fixing not just our individual shortcomings, but also by assessing and restoring the state of the planet.

It is overwhelming to do battle on both fronts. Facing our personal offenses is hard enough. But the environmental challenges require repair of the manifold choices that humans have made historically that brought a curse upon the planet. Unraveling these is a monumental task. But it is imperative that we “choose life” if our children are to live. Perhaps, Hirschfield says, doing the personal work can help us to “reset the clock politically, economically, corporately and culturally.”

We must try. And the Torah tells us that we can succeed.

“This mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today isn’t hidden or distant from you. It is not in heaven ... it is not over the sea ... it is very close to you ... in your mouth and in your heart ... so that you can keep it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

Those who live precariously on low-lying lands look to us with fear and longing. They cry out from the Gulf Coast, where they painfully observe the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina while dealing with the consequences of the BP/Halliburton oil spill. The voices come, as well, from Pakistan and other fragile parts of our world. They plead for us to end the reliance on fossil fuels, which foul our air and warm our seas. Their cries join those of the birds among the trees and the sound of the shofar to wake ourselves, our children and our grandchildren to the urgency of Moses’ entreaty: “Choose life, so that [we] ... will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

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