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D'var Torah - Nitzavim-Vayelekh

The Upper School celebrates Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming in/receiving Shabbat) as a campus every Friday morning. The community gathering includes a Dvar Torah (talk about the week's Torah portion) and a performance by students from across the grades. Stephanie Hoffman, Director of Jewish Life, delivered today's D'var Torah.

Close your eyes and imagine the following - yea, close your eyes: Imagine you are leading a group, and you have been leading them for a long time. You know that you are about to give your last speech as the leader. What would you say? Take just a few seconds to think about that....Open your eyes.

How many of you thought about this as a pep talk? Raise your hands if you thought about it as an opportunity to restate your goals for the people you have led. What about using it as an opportunity to challenge your followers and tell them that they're going to make mistakes?

In this week's parsha, Nitzavim-Vaylekh, Moshe speaks to B'nei Yisrael for the very last time. He's led them for the past forty years, and this double-parsha ends with Moshe transferring leadership to Yehoshua. So what does Moshe tell B'nei Yisrael in this final speech? We might think he uses this opportunity to encourage the people, or to talk about all of the incredible things that this ברית, this covenant with G-d, will offer them. It's an exciting moment for B'nei Yisrael.

It's a moment of great anticipation in which the people are binding themselves to the one who took them out of Egypt, who fed them in the desert, who protected them from their enemies while wandering the desert. Who wouldn't be excited to attach themselves to a G-d who has done this for them? And not only that, but it binds all future generations to this same protective G-d. It's kind of awesome, and I'd think that Moshe would highlight this. Instead, he uses the opportunity to challenge them, AND to tell them that they are going to mess up.

In פרק כט, פסוקים יז-יח, Moshe says:

פֶּן־יֵ֣שׁ בָּ֠כֶם אִ֣ישׁ אוֹ־אִשָּׁ֞ה א֧וֹ מִשְׁפָּחָ֣ה אוֹ־שֵׁ֗בֶט אֲשֶׁר֩ לְבָב֨וֹ פֹנֶ֤ה הַיּוֹם֙ מֵעִם֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ לָלֶ֣כֶת לַעֲבֹ֔ד אֶת־אֱלֹהֵ֖י הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָהֵ֑ם

Perhaps there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations

And this is where it gets interesting:

וְהָיָ֡ה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ֩ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֨י הָֽאָלָ֜ה הַזֹּ֗את וְהִתְבָּרֵ֨ךְ בִּלְבָב֤וֹ לֵאמֹר֙ שָׁל֣וֹם יִֽהְיֶה־לִּ֔י כִּ֛י בִּשְׁרִר֥וּת לִבִּ֖י אֵלֵ֑ךְ

When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may consider himself immune, thinking, "I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart"

Moshe continues by telling them that if they follow their hearts, G-d will punish them severely. How is this a final speech? It seems to lack hope.

According to Rashi, following your willful heart means that you will follow what your heart sees as good to do. It sounds a bit like G-d will punish those who follow their conscience, those who have considered what is before them and are trying to make the right decision.

Rather than this simply being about what we THINK is good, Moshe points out that the temptations around us can lead us to THINK that something is good even when it is not, and this is when G-d would punish B'nei Yisrael.

While Moshe's speech begins with this harsh look at what individuals might do, the speech turns into something very different.

Moshe proceeds to use the מילה מנחה - the repeating word - שוב, meaning return, seven times. You probably noticed it is also in the word תשובה, repentance. He talks about B'nei Yisrael returning to G-d even after they make their mistakes. And when this happens, G-d will gather all of B'nei Yisrael from the ends of the world. What Moshe makes clear is that no matter how many mistakes a person makes, or how far they travel away from the right decisions, there is always a path back to the covenant. Always a way to return, to make things right.

Last week, Rebecca Weiss discussed the importance of how one small change can make an enormous difference. From the marks that punctuate a series of words to the acts that punctuate our lives, the seemingly small things impact our understanding of the things and the people that surround us.

With Rosh Hashanah on the horizon, this message is amplified. We all have the opportunity, at any time of year, to return to how we want to be. We can look deep inside of ourselves and assess what we have done well and where we should improve. Do we exemplify the character traits we admire? What can each of us do as we strive to do better? As Rebecca talked about punctuation last week, how do we want to punctuate this moment in our lives?

As I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, I also wish you a shanah tovah full of self-reflection and growth.


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