Weekly Torah Commentary — Nitzavim/Vayelech Sept. 23, 2011

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana and we are preparing ourselves to face judgment. Jewish tradition teaches us that the judgment on Rosh Hashana concerns the events of this world. As we recite in this majestic prayer:

On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed: how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who will die before his time; who by water who by fire; who by sword who by beast; who by famine, who by thirst; … who will rest and who will wander; who will live in harmony and who will be harassed; who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer; who will be impoverished and who will be enriched; who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

But although the prayer service informs us about the sorts of matters that are decided on Rosh Hashana, it is less explicit about the considerations that enter the deliberations of the heavenly court. Consequently, it is all too easy to miss the entire point of the day. Not only does such an error result in a missed opportunity, it also opens the door to the possibility of failing to obtain the best possible judgment.

Judgment is a concept related to reward and punishment. Thus, a decree for a trouble-free, healthy life in the coming year represents a reward, while a bad decree that results in poverty and sickness is a punishment.

However, Jewish thinking looks at it differently. Our Sages teach us that it is impossible to receive the full reward for any mitzvah in this world (Talmud, Kidushin, 39b). The reward for any good deed performed by someone with a share in the World to Come (Olam Haba) is received in the future as the payoff in this world is incomparably less. While we do receive blessings from Hashem in this world, as were so eloquently described in last week’s portion (Deut. 28), the true reward of the mitzvot we do in this life is reserved for the world to come.

This week’s portion includes the following:
Look, I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances … But if your heart will stray and you will not listen, and you are led astray, and you prostrate yourselves to strange gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will surely be lost … I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring… (Deut. 30:15-19)

Hashem gives us the choice between life and good, and death and evil. What we need to understand is that “life and good” ultimately refer to eternal life, a place in the World to Come. In other words, when the Torah tells us, “choose life so that you will live…” it is calling us to make the life choices in our relationship with Hashem, with each other and with this world that reflect our inner conviction about eternal life. Simply stated, Torah is telling us to live our life day to day in the consciousness that this earthly life is temporary and what we do here is preparation for the World to Come.

When we live with this kind of eternal perspective, our day to day life decisions are guided by faith and principle, rather than spur of the moment earthly inclinations. Living conscious of the moment when we will stand before the Almighty One of Israel to give an account of our lives enables us to be much more conscious of even the smallest choice between good and evil, between obedience to Hashem or selfish living.

In Tune with Torah this week = As Rosh Hashana is now just a few days away, may we all focus intently on preparing our hearts for this awesome holy day and earnestly repent of all forms of selfish living, throwing ourselves on the awesome mercy of our Father, our King.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova – may we all be inscribed for a healthy and holy year.

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