Parashat Nitzavim – 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim
By Rabbi Doug Alpert

Growing up I always looked forward to an excerpt in the Siddur on Shabbos morning immediately following Ein Keiloheinu toward the end of Musaf. It is taken from Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 64a, “Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Students of Torah increase peace in the world…” (emphasis added). I am not sure what it was about this sugya of Talmud that I found so alluring; possibly that in conjunction with Ein Keiloheinu I found it to be a particularly affirming moment toward the end of a long morning of praying, or perhaps it was the mere fact that we were in the homestretch of our service, and Kiddush lunch was around the corner.

Whatever feelings elicited from the passage resonated for me in my youth, it has taken on even greater meaning over the years. Rav Kook-Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook provides a meaningful interpretation to address how Torah scholars might increase peace in the world. His interpretation responds to what might be considered a misguided response that peace is an all or nothing proposition.

Rav Kook responds to the dilemma by playing off Shalom/peace, and using the root of the word shalom (shin-lamed-mem) to suggest that peace operates on a spectrum leading us toward sheleimut completeness. More specifically, increasing peace happens as each new voice is brought in and heard. The wisdom that leads to peace is fulfilled through all of the divergent facets or opinions that will lead to a complete peace. Increasing peace represents a process by which a full diversity of viewpoints will come together in a “multi-faced prism, which encompasses a matter from all of its sides…that everyone, even people who are opposites in their paths and opinions are all seekers of G-d.” (See here).

In this week’s Torah portion Nitzavim, there is an emphasis on the need to include all voices and all people in how we live a life in covenant with G-d; a life of Torah. There is a correlation between our communal welfare, the welfare of the family or nation, and the welfare of individuals within the communal whole.

Nehama Leibowitz makes reference to what she describes as the marginal Jew, who asserts that they could bless themselves. (See Deuteronomy 29:18) Someone who seeks to derive benefit from the community without assuming the duties that go with it (and I would argue here for a duty to seek communal peace) commits a transgression from which G-d will not forgive. (Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy at p. 308). This is the correlative opposite of increasing peace; rather by removing one’s voice from community it diminishes peace.

Further on in this week’s Torah portion is the seminal verse that our Torah “is not in heaven…” (Deuteronomy 30:11) A common interpretation of this verse relates to our ability to access Torah, rather than thinking its teachings are too obscure for our understanding. However, the message can also serve as a polemic against elitism. “The Torah is not the property of a privileged caste of priests and initiates.” (Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy at p. 325) To give Torah life and meaning we need all voices to lead us toward its interpretation; to give a sense of wholeness to our relationship with Torah, and our relationship to each other. “All your children shall be taught by [G-d], and your children shall increase peace.” (T.B. Berakhot 64a) (emphasis added)

As we complete Elul and approach the Yamim Noraim-the Days of Awe we again undertake the sacred endeavor of Heshbon HaNefesh. We take an accounting of our souls both as individuals, and a communal accounting. We endeavor to discover ways to do better in the year 5783; to increase peace in the world.

Let this be a year for us when peace is increased, where the marginalized voices are given voice and new ideas are heard and lifted up with dignity and respect.

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah


Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.