Parsha Nitzavim and Parsha Vayelech, which are read in tandem this week, complete the series of discourses delivered by Moses to the Children of Israel, as they camped on the threshold of the Promised Lands.
Moses, on the eve of his death delivered a heart wrenching address to his people, beseeching them to follow the laws dictated by God and to lead lives of devotion, discipline and duty. The tone is oratorical, the delivery eloquent, but the message was a familiar one. Once more Moses sought to enjoin the Israelites to abide by the Covenant and receive the blessing of God. And once again he admonished them, warning that should they reject the Covenant and serve other gods, they would suffer a cursed existence: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”. Choosing life meant choosing to live a life with value, a life governed by the love of God with all one’s heart and with all one’s soul; a life governed by the statutes and ordinances set down by God and as taught by him. A life apart from the Torah, devoid of its ethical and moral teachings, was a life wasted. That was the clear and simple message that Moses was hoping would sustain his people in their future without him. A statement framed as a Hobson’s choice. James Kugel observed that only “one bent on self-destruction” would make the deliberate choice of death, yet as history has recorded, the Children of Israel often made that decision.
The Parsha ends with perhaps the saddest verses recorded in the Torah ‘Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant that it may be there for a witness against thee. For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck; behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against God; and how much more after my death? The sad irony is that Moses accurately predicted what would become of his people. The Book of Judges records that after the death of Joshua and the people of his generation, a “new generation arose after them that did not know God, nor the deeds that He performed for Israel”. Yet, the words that Moses pronounced that day somehow survived and the culture he hoped to shape did come to pass and to flourish even in the face of adversities and calamities.
The Israelites did rebel against God. Idolatry was endemic throughout the period leading to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 C.E. Perhaps because of the trauma they suffered, the Israelites (now Judeans) embraced the faith of Moses, upon which was founded the intellectual rubric of the Second Temple. This, a seminal event in Judaism, is poignantly described by Nehemiah, a leader of the early Second Temple period; “All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses. And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law… and Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people—for he was above all the people—and when he opened it, all the people stood up… And they read in the book… And all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. And from that time forward, the legacy of Moses has gone from strength to strength.