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Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh

September 1, 2010

Nitzavim-VaYelekh, our double portion for this week, includes the 7th Haftarah in a series of Haftarot of Comfort and Consolation, read on the 7 Shabbatot following Tisha B Av. It is read on the Shabbat just preceding Rosh Hashanah as we are entering the period of intense personal introspection and accounting that is the essence of the Days of Awe.

The Haftarah comes from the Book of Isaiah, and is generally assumed to have been written by a prophet who lived in exile in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  As with many of the prophetic writings, he writes about national issues, specifically God s redemption of the Israelites and their promised triumphant return to Zion after generations of exile.

The prophet is comforting the exiles with the assurance that God has forgiven their sins (presented in earlier writings) and that they will be returning to Zion, to Jerusalem. The journey of the Israelites has been long  “ from Egypt, to the wilderness, to Canaan, then to exile in Babylonia. The people of Israel are ready to go home.

The Haftarah and Torah portion are connected because of the calendar and there is one prominent and central common theme: the return, renewal, and redemption of the Jewish people as a nation and as individuals, and both speak in robust and potent language about God s love.

The Torah portion for Nitzavim is found in Deuteronomy and is the 4th parashah from the end of the Torah. Moses is beginning his final appeal and farewell to the Israelites before he dies.  Within the oration Moses presents a powerful and enduring foundation for Israel s religion in the Torah that will be valid for all generations. The reading begins with Moses calling upon  œall of you, before the Lord your God- your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day that he may establish you this day as his people and be your God  (29:9).

Moses comforts his people in his last days as he reminds them of their covenant with God who took them out of Egypt and, if they remember God and the covenant in the words similar to those in our Shema: kekhol asher anokhi mitzavekha hayom atta u vanekha bekhol levavekha u’vekhol nafshekha.  œ ¦according to all that I command you today, you and your children with all your heart and with all your soul; veshav Adonai Elohekha et shevutekha verihamekha.  œThen the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love  (30:2-3).

 œSee I set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.  œFor I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments, his laws, and his rules  (30:15-16). And the most powerful of all messages is in 30:19. Moses has put before the people the choice of life or death, of blessing or curse and he implores them to  œChoose Life  by loving God and following his commandments.

We can find a great deal of meaning in the Haftarah text for today, both coming as it does before Rosh Hashanah and because it is filled with gorgeous poetic and descriptive language rejoicing with jubilance for the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem and of God s redemption, love, and compassion. We have the beginning of a new year juxtaposed with the dawning of a new era for Israel s exiles. One cannot help feeling excited about the prospect of change and renewal and choice. Isaiah is comforting his people with the assurance that God has forgiven them for their sins and so can we be forgiven today, and we can and will return to Jerusalem in our hearts.

The verses of the Torah and Haftarah are vigorous and formidable and speak directly to the heart. The words are poignant and focus on re-invention, choosing life, personal renewal, and God s love. The words create a strong connection to our ancestors and a pull to live with God and to live consciously. May we all choose life as we move into the New Year.

Miriam Herscher is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.