Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilekh

Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30

September 4, 2010 / 25 Elul 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Abigail Treu, rabbinic fellow and director of Donor Relations and Planned Giving, JTS.

My kids have a hard time taking turns speaking. While their mother tries to instill some manners, they have taken to shouting, "Pause!" in order to silence one another, a phrase they've adapted from their use of the TV remote control to temporarily stop the scene unfolding on screen.

An inviting metaphor: hitting pause on the forward motion of our lives, attending to what needs to be said or done, and then pressing the play button to continue the action. Of course, life doesn't work that way. The High Holiday season invites us to try it, though: before the new year unfolds we pause, take time off from work to be with our fellow Jews, and stand still for a few days.

Stand still, nitzavim, before we move forward, vayeilekh: the double parashah we read just before Rosh Hashanah invites us to recognize what we need to do. Stuck in the narrative while Moses talks—reviewing the history of forty years gone by and preparing for the future about to unfold—we hardly notice what the names of the parashah, Nitzavim-Vayeilekh, suggest.

The metaphors of "pause" and "play" or of "stopping" and "starting," however, do not do full justice to the rabbinic model. Yes, we are to stand still, to spend time reviewing and preparing before moving into a new year. But more than that, we must become a little disoriented, a little shaken up, in order to really be able to move forward in a meaningful way. If we simply hit pause, we haven't done what our tradition is asking us to do this month. We need to go deeper, and for that we need to be taken out of the regular, ordered rhythm of life and into someplace at once familiar and disquieting.

After reading straight through nearly four-fifths of the humash, we are almost at the end. The obvious way of concluding would be to hit pause, and then press play and read straight to the end. But that's not what we do. For the next month, we are going to skip around. Here at Nitzavim-Vayeilekh, we are nearing the end of Moses's last speech; but in a few days we will jump to the middle of Genesis for Rosh Hashanah. Not the beginning of Genesis, mind you, as the idea of a "new year" might suggest (in fact, for the birthday of the world it might make the most sense to read the Creation story). No: we read from the middle of that first book of our national story. We don't get too ensconced, however: for Yom Kippur, we land in Leviticus. A few days later, for Sukkot, we read from Numbers, until Shabbat, at which point we are plunged into a mini-revelation scene from Exodus. Finally, on Simhat Torah, we pick up where we left off, back towards the end, finishing out Deuteronomy and then in one fell swoop beginning again "in the beginning." Even the haftarot are jarring: after nine weeks straight of Isaiah, we will now be confronted with eleven different prophets in one month, eleven different voices and visions and understandings of what God wants from us. Until we finally land back with Joshua, with a narrative picking up where it left off, just as life will take its next steps as we settle again, "post-haggim," into the rhythm of the normal.

We are hitting pause and then being disoriented, through both the calendar and the text. We are in shul on Thursdays and Fridays, celebrating with friends and family on weeknights. In fact, this is part of why the Yamim Nora'im are so synagogue-centric: the place where so many Jews are so uncomfortable is precisely the place we are invited to come and take stock of our lives once a year. (For those of us who smugly feel at home at shul, we are handed a liturgy so different from the usual one that we, too, are stopped in our tracks.) And while we're in shul, the very narratives that usually lend order and structure to our lives are presented out of order, disorienting us so that we are forced to step back and do the kind of deeper reflection that tradition calls on us to undertake.

There is, however, one constant: the maftir readings. Over the course of the month, we slowly read Numbers 29 from start to finish, progressing in a chronologically sound manner through the list of festivals that we celebrate as we read. It is the one place tying together the chaos of the calendar and the narrative. The cycle of time, which we usually mark with the sidra, is for the month of Tishrei marked by the maftir. The coda reading, usually the afterthought, grounds us, and the juxtaposition of stories read out of order next to a maftir progressing on pace alerts us to the reality that the march of time is relentless, and we'd better stop and consider how we are living before it goes by too fast.

Sometimes we need to stand still, nitzavim, and pause the action of our lives. And sometimes, too, we need to see things out of order, to read Genesis in the middle of Deuteronomy, Leviticus in the middle of Genesis, Numbers in the autumn. We need the narrative to jolt us into seeing things differently. After a year of slogging through the parashah, we have grown complacent to the truths it has revealed; reading it out of order makes it new again, just in time for us to go, vayeilekh, and face the newness available to us in the year ahead.

This week, we will leave off mid-sentence. We stand, paused in the desert as the final verse of Vayeilekh brings us to the edge of motion: "Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel." What poem? What did he say? We have to wait a month to hear it. By then, the calendar will have moved us into a new year. We will have had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot to review the journey we have taken thus far and to articulate our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. We stand still, narratively on pause but also traveling great distances, for in the intervening weeks of living with schedules and parashiyot upended, we hope to achieve an inner stillness that will steel us for a new year of purpose and forward direction.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.