As we approach the high holidays, the final parshas of the Torah are often overlooked in place of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ideas. But there’s a reason we read these chapters when we do. And in the case of Nitzavim, the parsha always read before Rosh Hashana, it has some extraordinarily relevant sentiments for the coming holiday.
A New Covenant
The reading starts out with Moses gathering the Jewish people on the day of his death to offer them a new covenant with Hashem. How is this covenant different from the one at Mt. Sinai? If you go back and look at the Ten Commandments, you may notice that they are all written in the singular. As in, they are presented to the individual in a personal nature. However with this new covenant, the nation is gathered in first a general language, “You stand… all of you…” then becomes more specific, “…from your wood cutters to the water drawers.” (Devarim 29: 9-10).
The Gemara comments that the unique aspect of this covenant is that where the last one was individual, this one is for the community, together. As in, we all become guarantors to each other. This is a value somewhat counter to the modern value of “live and let live” and “you do you.” In Judaism, we believe that we are all connected and that no person is an island.
But I’m Special
Then after this covenant of unity, an odd and chilling passage is given;
Perhaps there is among you [one] whose thoughts stray today from being with Hashem, our God…When he hears the statements of this oath he will imagine blessings, saying, “Peace will be my lot when I shall follow what my thoughts envision,” … Hashem will be unwilling to forgive him… His vengeful fury enflame against that man. (Devarim 29: 17-19)
I don’t know about you, but for many things in my life, I have often felt, “Yes I know people should do X, but do I really need to do it?” Maybe it’s recycling, maybe it’s having kevana (intention) for all of prayer, maybe it’s making sure my blog posts are free of typos and up to a high school level of grammatical standard. And being a baal teshuvah (someone becoming more observant) I certainly have that view point as I slowly take on mitzvahs. The Torah seems to be calling me out plain and simple. The repercussions are so severe that the chapter goes on further to say it is because of this mindset that Israel will eventually be destroyed and made barren like God did to Sodom and Gemorrah.
So should I begin the self flagellation now?
Before we get too terrified, let’s think a little bit about this mindset. Above in the quote is, “Peace will be my lot when I shall follow what my thoughts envision. ” That phrase “thoughts envision”, בִּשְׁרִר֥וּת לִבִּ֖ beshreros libi might better be translated as “fantasies of the heart.” It doesn’t take a Torah scholar to know that many of us choose the realities we want to live in. Whether it is diet, politics, sports teams, or our own personal illusions, we all filter out some information while choosing to acknowledge others. C’mon who has time to Snopes.com every headline and shared Facebook click bait? But what Rosh Hashana is all about is waking up and facing the realities that are most important. Where should our time be spent? What deserves to be top priority? And ultimately, what is our relationship with Hashem?
When is Too Much, Too Much?
Is the Torah saying, stop your excuses and start committing to all 613 mitzvahs right now?
There is a saying in the Talmud (Chagigah 17a), “tofasta meruba lotofasta.” If you try to grab too much you will end up with nothing. There are stories of people who go off to yeshiva, become super frum (strictly observant) almost overnight and within a few years, they fall off the religious wagon. That approach is clearly unhealthy. So how do we reconcile these two ideas?
The key word; mindset. The person talked about in the verse is someone content with where they are and believes there will be no consequences for it. A mindset of doing some of the mitzvahs while labeling the rest of them as absurd, or impractical, or just too much of an inconvenience. However, there is a world of difference if a person who is doing the exact same mitzvahs and transgressing the exact same averahs (sins) as the person above, but has the mindset that he should be doing all the mitzvahs but he just is not able to do them all right now.
One is a static mindset and one is a growth mindset. The static mindset frees one from responsibility and ultimately makes mitzvahs about oneself. What do I feel like doing? I don’t need to learn about X mitzvah because I’m never going to do it. While the other mindset is about becoming closer to God.
One Step At a Time
It’s a big choice. And to be honest I’m not sure I’ve made it. I’m probably still living in the first mindset to some degree. Do I really believe I can do ALL the mitzvahs? Do I even want to? I don’t know. But here are some encouraging ideas on the matter.
Rabbenu Yonah comments on a line from parsha Behukosai by saying that a person who is truly sincere in accepting all the mitzvahs, even if they are not able to do them all now but wants to in the end… that person gets the reward for doing all the mitzvahs TODAY. Just the authentic decision to eventually take them on, in Hashem’s eyes, is as if you’ve already done them! Then a Midrash in Shir HaShirim similarly says that if you open your heart up like the eye of a needle, God will open it up like a banquet hall. As the popular joke says, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One. But the light bulb has to want to change.” If you make the effort (concerning spiritual matters) it is extraordinary how far Hashem will carry you.
So if you decide to make this choice to try to do it all eventually, where do you start? The thing to ask yourself is, what is the next thing I can do that will have the greatest impact on the future? As I mentioned before, having lengthy New Year’s resolution lists is a recipe for disaster. Find the one thing that you can actually take on and commit to that.
The Community Impact
I started this blog talking about the covenant that binds the community. That we are all responsible for one another. But then I spent the entire post talking about personal decisions. So what’s the connection? The things we do influences others around us whether we see it or not. So even though it is a single person who decides to follow the fantasies of their heart, in actuality, that mindset is far more pervasive. Our attitude and our outlooks are reflected in the people around us in ways we can’t possibly perceive. But that also means that even the smallest steps we take in growth have a viral impact on the community.
At Rosh Hashana, we can feel God’s presence more than any other time. You have the opportunity to see Him as King and capitalize on a whole new direction. Or you can count how many pages are left in the machzor and make next year just like last year. It’s up to you. But if you do decide to make the choice to connect, you’ll have some big help.
This blog post was written in the honor of Shoshana Zimra bas Avraham and Pearl bas Harry. May their neshamas have an aliyah.