Nitzavim/Vayeilech: Torah as common language

Nitzavim/Vayeilech: Torah as common language

One of Moshe’s last public functions, as noted by Rashi at the beginning of our sedra, is to gather the people together to ratify their covenant with God. “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem” – “all of you are standing before God today” (Deuteronomy 29:9). It was a great moment of positive populist sentiment emphasizing that the Torah belongs to all, regardless of class, occupation, or social station. This message is further emphasized in that latter part of Nitzavim in the statement, “For this commandment which I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the Heavens (lo bashamayim he) for you to say, who shall ascend there to take it for us, so that we can listen to it and observe it? … Rather it is near to you in your mouth, (to speak of) and in your heart to perform (and act on)” (30:11-14). These last words, “b’ficha uv’lvavcha la’asoto” ring especially true today, for our generation that can easily apprehend the tools and opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement and study, in ways once unimaginable.

We live in Jewishly blessed times with access to sources in the original. A personal Jewish library is within reach of all. Text-based study abounds with countless resources to facilitate access to the wisdom of our heritage. Indeed, “it is not in the Heavens,” but is close at hand for all who wish to experience, learn, and live its message.

Perhaps one of the most striking illustrations of late was the realization of how many people the world over participated in the completion of the twelfth cycle of the daily page of Talmud study. This program, known as the Daf Yomi, was instituted by the late Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923 in Lublin, Poland. The major celebration that took place here in New Jersey at Met Life Stadium with more than 90,000 in attendance was simulcast to 60 U.S. cities and more than 20 countries. What matters most was not the fanfare given to the event but the reality of the growing claim of daily Torah study today on so many people the world over.

To echo the words of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, “Torah study is the common language of the Jewish people.” For those rabbis who have studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute there is that experience of finding common ground when we are engrossed in study. One easily becomes absorbed in the Talmud’s text or some other original source. We are brought together for the conversation created by the daf. And to the credit of our Sages whose creative conversation courses through the various tractates, the possibilities for intellectual and spiritual discovery are endless.

In the wake of the most recent Daf Yomi siyum there has been a plethora of commentary on its merits and a call for some means of daily study coming from all corners of the community. Some have advocated a different text claiming that the Talmud is too parochial and denies contemporary concerns and sensitivities. I would encourage a second read of the matter to recognize that great good can be achieved by this common text that is indeed open to so many different voices.

We are a fortunate generation that can draw close to our foundational texts and see the text from this week’s sedra, “it is not hidden and it is not distant… it is not in the Heavens” made all the more true and compelling. These words are no longer prescriptive but descriptive of a new communal reality absent intellectual elitism.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of its many meanings. Shanah is a multi-purpose and highly variegated term that means not only to review and reflect, but also to learn and to change. As such the New Year’s name ties us to the pride of the past, even as it obligates us to search for new ways to expand our horizons. Through a daily commitment to Torah study, now evident in ever increasing numbers, we can all reach new heights while drawing closer to each other through the shared language of Jewish learning.