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

“See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  (Deut. 30:15)

We read two parashot (portions) this week because of the way the Jewish calendar is calculated.  Months are determined by the moon’s cycle, but the year is determined by the sun’s. Therefore, a Jewish year (including leap years, which add an entire month) can have from 50-55 weeks. Since the number of parashot doesn’t change, some years require that some get “doubled up” on a given Shabbat.

T’shuva as we know it today (a personal act of reflection and repentance) doesn’t exist in the Torah.  It is a construction of the rabbis following the destruction of the Temples and the end of the sacrificial cult.  They validate this idea by “reading into” selected Biblical texts – that is, interpreting in light of the concept.  Parashat Nitzavim offers a case study of their creativity.

Nitzavim uses the root sh-u-v (return) seven times within ten verses (Deut. 30:1-10).  Since repetition of any word in the Torah is meaningful, a sevenfold repetition is highly significant.  Nitzavim also uses an envelope structure, called a chiasm, to make its point more sharply.  The passage begins and ends with the Israelites’ return to God (Deut. 30:1-2; 10).  Set just inside those acts of return at both the beginning and end is God’s return to the Israelites (Deut. 30:3; 9).  These two acts bracket the central idea:  the Israelites will again (tashuv) heed the Lord… (Deut. 30:8).  Think of it like a side-view of a mountain:  the right and left bases (Israel’s return to God) support the right and left sides (God’s return to Israel) which converge at the peak: Israel’s acceptance of God.

The rabbis use this combination of language and structure to spotlight not only the importance of t’shuvah, but also its reciprocal effect:  when we return, God returns (a model for human relationships; reaching out triggers reaching out).  This is why Parashat Nitzavim always is read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, when we begin aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, which conclude with Yom Kippur.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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