Conversations About the End – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech

Every night at bedtime, I tuck my kids in with a deep snuggle and we recite the same words “I love you forever and ever with my whole heart.” One evening, this prompted my daughter to ask me if her Papa loved her. She believes he did, even though he died before she was even an inkling in my mind. This led to a conversation (on a six-year-old level) about death, relationships, the lasting effects of love, and how “forever and ever” can be a feeling of love even when I’m not necessarily by her side. As you can see, our pillow talk is light and easy going! 

It isn’t easy to talk about death, especially when it involves thinking about our own or the possibility that loved ones might have to learn how to live without us. However, we learn in the Torah that not only are we obligated to try and face this reality, we must prepare for it.

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moses’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. The final words begin his goodbye to the people Israel.

These last few chapters are Moses’s way of letting the Israelite nation know that he won’t be with them forever, and they need to prepare for the time when he won’t be physically present. The last time Moses left the Israelites to go up the mountain for an extended absence, they were fearful and fraught. They broke the Commandments, created their own rules, and ended up in chaos. This time, Moses wants to ensure that the nation has the strength, faith, and guidance to move forward without issue.

Moses takes the time to share a plan of blessings and reminders to the people. He calls out the mourning they will feel and reminds them that while it would be easy to return to their “wicked ways,” it’s essential that they maintain faith and understanding in God’s protection. 

So too must we remind our loved ones that we will always love and support them. One way we do that is through tangible, concrete assurances like wills, trusts, and mementos like photos, videos and letters. Another way is by reminding our loved ones now that even once we’re not physically together, which may be painful at times, the love and connection will always be there.

For the Future – Parshat Nitzavim 5779

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I love my challah recipe. It’s the best of both worlds – easy and delicious. The thing is, as often as we have other families over for Shabbat dinner, it’s hard to keep challah in the house long enough to enjoy it myself. This is why I always have a backup (or three) in the freezer. It really comes in handy for those times when I just don’t have the time to get a fresh one in the oven or when the oven itself decides to stop baking, both of which have happened, making me so glad I was prepared with extra.

So much of life consists of things we do to provide for the future, whether for us, our children, or our descendants. We buy life insurance, we set aside money for college, we plan for retirement. When we plan for our funerals, we even prepay in order to enjoy the credit card points now. So much of what we worry about as parents and grandparents is how today will impact tomorrow. But what does the future hold? No one really knows for sure. Yes, we have a basic understanding that how we treat the environment now will affect the planet’s livability down the road, and yes, we know that we can set aside funds for our own well-being, but ultimately, there is no real way of knowing what the future will bring.

The Torah spends almost the entirety of its books focusing on lessons to live a moral, ethical life and only looks toward the future with regard to the Israelites living in the land of Israel. This week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson quite clearly. It begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they are making together and how binding it is.

In chapter 29, verse 28 the Torah reads, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply the provisions of this teaching.” In other words, things done in secret are between you and God. Acts done in public are not only the problem of society, but become a burden on our future.

This is not meant to suggest that, in the example of the environment, private pollution is totally acceptable, but public pollution is not. What it teaches is that we all have the burden of holding each other accountable for our actions, including and especially the ones that affect our future. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah reminds us that what we do in the world matters not just to our current society, but to all of those who will come after us.

For the Future – Parshat Nitzavim 5779

for-the-future.jpg

I love my challah recipe. It’s the best of both worlds – easy and delicious. The thing is, as often as we have other families over for Shabbat dinner, it’s hard to keep challah in the house long enough to enjoy it myself. This is why I always have a backup (or three) in the freezer. It really comes in handy for those times when I just don’t have the time to get a fresh one in the oven or when the oven itself decides to stop baking, both of which have happened, making me so glad I was prepared with extra.

So much of life consists of things we do to provide for the future, whether for us, our children, or our descendants. We buy life insurance, we set aside money for college, we plan for retirement. When we plan for our funerals, we even prepay in order to enjoy the credit card points now. So much of what we worry about as parents and grandparents is how today will impact tomorrow. But what does the future hold? No one really knows for sure. Yes, we have a basic understanding that how we treat the environment now will affect the planet’s livability down the road, and yes, we know that we can set aside funds for our own well-being, but ultimately, there is no real way of knowing what the future will bring.

The Torah spends almost the entirety of its books focusing on lessons to live a moral, ethical life and only looks toward the future with regard to the Israelites living in the land of Israel. This week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson quite clearly. It begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they are making together and how binding it is.

In chapter 29, verse 28 the Torah reads, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply the provisions of this teaching.” In other words, things done in secret are between you and God. Acts done in public are not only the problem of society, but become a burden on our future.

This is not meant to suggest that, in the example of the environment, private pollution is totally acceptable, but public pollution is not. What it teaches is that we all have the burden of holding each other accountable for our actions, including and especially the ones that affect our future. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah reminds us that what we do in the world matters not just to our current society, but to all of those who will come after us.

Renewing Ourselves – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech 5778

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*Next week I’ll be posting my Rosh Hashanah sermon, so this week I’ve included d’vrei Torah for the portions covering the next two weeks.

About a year after Matan was born, Duncan turned to me and said, “You know I love you now more than ever, but do you ever get the feeling these days that we’re more like roommates than husband and wife?” Never before were truer words spoken. It is so easy to get lost in the single-minded focus of the first year of a child’s life. Add to that one three-year-old, two crazy work schedules, and so much more, and we often ended up like two ships passing in the night. As we learned, unfortunately intimacy sometimes takes a backseat to necessary sleep, and a romantic anniversary lunch date can quickly turn into swapping calendars and talking about the kids instead of focusing on our relationship. A marriage, or any partnership that involves an intimate human connection and closeness, requires reaffirming the commitment. Commitment is not a one-time thing; it’s an active, ongoing process.

This applies not just to personal relationships, but to Torah and even to religion in general. Judaism as a faith is based on the relationships we maintain with one another, with text, and with God. Over the next two weeks we will read Parshat Nitzavim and Vayelech. These are the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us of our free will in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and in general to be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process of transferring leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation.  

The text begins in Parshat Nitzavim that we should “enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day with its sanctions.” This is interesting timing. Didn’t the Israelite nation already affirm their commitment to God’s mitzvot and to God when they stood at Sinai and agreed “na’aseh v’nishma”? “All that God has said we will do and we will understand.” Why are we now asked to enter into the covenant once more?

Shneur Zalman, the 18th century rabbi of Liyadi, views this relationship as an intimate marriage. He teaches, “Just as a husband and wife need to reaffirm their commitment to each other when the early days of romantic attraction have given way to the day-to-day struggle to overcome accumulated disappointments, so too God and the people Israel need to reaffirm the covenant at this later date.”  

Like new parents trying to maintain intimacy when daily life takes over, our relationship with God and with our faith community requires attention and intentionality in order to be maintained. These two parshiyot at the end of the Torah remind us that we are in need of constant work and engagement in order to find fulfillment in Judaism. What a perfect reminder in the new year that the text is there, the community is ready, and all it takes is intention.

New Year’s Reinventions

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Susan Nanus entered rabbinical school when she was 54 years old. Now 67, Rabbi Nanus is a member of the clergy team at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a thriving center of Jewish life (and of historical note, the first synagogue in Los Angeles). You might not have heard the name Susan Nanus before, but you might be familiar with the work she did in her previous career. In her late 20s, after graduating Yale Drama School, Susan started earning a living as a playwright and screenwriter. She went on to have a successful 30-year writing career, which included award-winning TV movies and plays on Broadway.

Throughout those decades of her first life, Susan was actively involved in the Jewish community, working part time in Jewish education. But it wasn’t until much later in life that Judaism inspired her to go in a completely new direction and reinvent herself as a rabbi.

I have transition and reinvention on my mind as we enter the High Holy Days. A new year brings with it an interesting mix of feelings. There’s the comfort of the yearly cycle, knowing we can expect familiar traditions, familiar change of seasons, and familiar annual events. At the same time, there’s a sense of rejuvenation that suggests anything is possible when we start fresh. How will you reinvent yourself in the new year?

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we are responsible for our choices in life and that the proper path is to follow the rules and be good people (and to repent when we’re not). Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. At the heart of these Torah portions is the transition – the reinvention – of Moshe from current leader to former leader.

In chapter 31, verse 2 of Deuteronomy we read, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” Although this transition may have been on his mind for quite some time, this is the moment when Moshe reveals that he is ready to help the change in leadership occur. It’s the kind of transfer of power we should aspire to; Moshe knows the time has come, and his acknowledgement of that sends a strong, levelheaded message. The self-awareness to understand when you’ve done all you can do means you’re putting the needs of your people ahead of your own. This is the model for leadership, and this is the model for transition.

It is challenging to let go, and yet even Moshe, who led the Israelites to redemption, was able to recognize when it was time to step down. Nitzavim and Vayelech remind us that change is necessary, but our High Holy Days remind us that change can be just the beginning. Shabbat shalom.