When Fiona asked me to give this week’s sermon, I thought “Oh no, I can’t possibly.” I had several big work commitments right around now – I was still supposed to be travelling next week. But I took a quick look at the portion anyway: Nitzavim – Vayeilech, and there it was in today’s reading – one of my favourite passages, verses 11 – 14. This is Moses speaking:
For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?”
Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?”
Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.
It’s not too hard – you can do it. Those crucial words of encouragement. Directed very much at the individual – it’s close to you, in your heart, in your mouth, my heart, my mouth. It’s speaking directly to me – of course I’ll give the sermon. It’s the right thing to do – it won’t be too hard – I’ll manage.
The passage imparts confidence. It says the commandments, the mitzvot, aren’t beyond our comprehension. They’re not so mysterious – you don’t have to go to the heavens or cross the sea to know what the right thing to do is. It’s within our human grasp – we can work it out.
Before I continue, let me plug the Parashat Hashavua group on Thursday nights and credit it for some of the thoughts I’ll be sharing. In particular Orna mentioned the following story in the Talmud: it describes a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua on some matter of Jewish Law. Rabbi Eliezer calls on various divine interventions to prove he’s right: a tree moves, water flows backwards, walls start to cave in – Rabbi Joshua says that’s no proof. God finally speaks up on behalf of Rabbi Eliezer “What have I got to do prove he’s right?” butRabbi Joshua still argues, saying: “The Torah is not in heaven!” To which God concedes saying “My children have triumphed over me.”
We have the ability, and the responsibility, to interpret the Torah’s teachings, and to do so in the context of our own lives. The instruction is personal: “this thing is very close to you; it’s in your mouth and in your heart.” And in the context of today’s world – the preceding passages are speaking to future generations – “to our children forever.” And not just to individuals, but to groups: “families, tribes”.
We’re supposed to be able to work out, on our own or collectively, the right course of action. It’s not so mysterious, not so intractable.
And to drive home the Torah’s message, the next set of verses is the source of the popular phrase “Choose life”. Moses says: I set before you today life and good, death and evil – choose life. It makes it sound so easy, so obvious – of course I’ll choose life. That’s a no-brainer.
But is it really that easy? Isn’t “choose life” a huge oversimplification? In reality we’re frequently faced with dilemmas much harder and more consequential than the question of whether to give a sermon. These days in relation to Covid for example. On an individual level, about where to draw the line in terms of extent of social contact. Or at a societal level about whether to reopen schools. These are hard questions.
What does it mean anyway to “choose life”? It’s a phrase that’s been appropriated in various contexts: anti-abortion, anti-drug, anti-suicide, but let’s look at the verses themselves. Life isn’t being presented as the immediate choice, but as an implied consequence of other choices, of the decision to do good. And we’re told to choose life, so that you and your offspring will live. We’re reminded of the long view, of the fact that our actions affect future generations, a point very relevant to how we treat the environment for example.
But the more precise instruction in these verses is to love God, to walk in God’s ways, to observe the mitzvot. And this is what we’re supposed to be able to comprehend. Nobody has to ascend to heaven or cross the sea to find out what we’re supposed to do. But no it’s not supposed to be obvious either, and we don’t have a direct line like Moses or Rabbi Eliezer – we’re the Rabbi Joshua’s who have to work it out for ourselves.
The verses don’t say it’s easy – what they say is that it’s not hidden, it’s near to us, it’s in our hearts. And it’s when we’re faced with the tough calls that these words of encouragement are so relevant, the reminder that we have the ability and responsibility to search our souls, to examine the possible consequences of our actions, and to try to find the right path.