Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Rosh Hashanah 5770- Some thoughts as the day approaches

A few people here know me in real life, and know that I act as the Rabbi in a small local community (and I just can’t get them to stop calling me Rabbi! It makes me uncomfortable since I do not have smicha but they insist since I fill the role…)  The community, while Orthodox, has many that are not shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, so this Shabbos I searched for some interesting mussar to think about prior to Rosh Hashanah.  Luckily for me, parshas Nitzavim provided a fantastic drosha, which I will use here hoping that it will hopefully provide some insight for others as they prepare to Rosh Hashanah.

The Parsha this week starts with the following verses:

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,   ט. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל:
10. your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers,   י. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ

Rashi points out the word “Niztavim” comes from the word for pillar “Matzevah”, showing that the peopel were standing straight and upright before Moshe and Yehoshua.  haRav haGaon Moshe Feinstein in Darash Moshe raises an interesting question on this.  “A matzeivah is a type of altar that we are commanded to destroy.  The Torah commands us to destroy them, along with the asheirim and other forms of idol worship when we come into the land of Israel, the land Hashem promised us.  As such, it seems inappropriate to utilise them as an image when discussing Bnei Yisrael!  So, what is the Torah saying here?  To understand this- we need to understand why a pillar is hated as an altar by Hashem:  it is hated because it represents a static state- a pillar cannot grow;it cannot go up, on the contrary it can be cur short and decrease.  A pillar represents a static spiritual state, or worse, a decreasing one.  So why is the image appropriate here?  Rav Moshe points out that Moshe is saying to Yehoshua:  “I am no longer the leader, I will not be the one to teach and to raise the peoples spirituality, I have taken them as far as I can.  For me, they are a pillar, they have reached a fixed spiritual state.  You, however, as the new leader, have the task of seeing to their spiritual needs, of making sure they grow and improve on themselves from where they are now.”

What is the lesson in this for us as we approach Rosh Hashanah?  Look at what it says- ALL of Bnei Yisrael were standing there; all of them, from the most learned sages and mightiest leaders, to the most humble servants.  They all stood there and affirmed the covenant, yet each one of them stood at a different spiritual level.  Moshe did not say look at the pillar of Israe, look at them as whole and find a spiritual level they must all get to; rather he said- “look at them as individuals, each one holding at a different place, each one with a different potential.”  The call here is for each person to grow according to their potential, not according to the potential of Moshe or Yehoshua!

The parsha pouts this lesson in different terms later on as well:

Chapter 30

11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.   יא. כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא:
12. 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?”   יב. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
13. 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?”   יג. וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
14. Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.   יד. כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ:

The Torah is not far, it is not impossible for anyone to reach.  Yes, for all of us there are things we cannot yet grasp or do properly, but for all of us, there is at least one element in it that is close to us!  It might be somethin simple and what you preceive as a light prohibition or a minor mitzvah; it does not matter, what does matter is the fact that we take the opportunity to bring that bit into our lives- to turn towards the bit that is close to us and incorporate it into our lives.  That is the lesson for this week:  as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, for the writing of our fate for the next year as Hashem sits in judgement, let is find that one thing that is close to us.  The one element from the Torah that we can incorporate into our lives, improve ourselves and elevate ourselves s[piritually through it.  Let us use these last few days to find how we can improve ourselves, not to be like Moshe or Aharon, or the Avot, but to be more ourselves and more in tune with ourselves and Hashem

To all my readers: Shana Tovah u’metukah vgar ktivah v’chatima tovah

Note:  As always, comments, corrections and discussion are welcomed and encouraged.  Hebrew text and translations are from the online Judaica Press Tanakh at


September 14, 2009 - Posted by | Chagim, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , ,


  1. I think that I agree with your overall message (Thank you). Would you go so far as to say that the prohibition against erecting a pillar could also be taken figuratively? Shouldn’t we generally discourage beliefs that raise any Jew over another. I am not saying this is a rampant problem, but I do think it is something that we all do every day. I sometimes feel alienated from those who believe their Rabbi is ‘greater’ and my Rabbi is ‘less’. And wouldn’t this apply even more to those who are not Orthodox at all. Do we as UltraOrthodox/Modern Orthodox make Conservative and Reform feel less. I am not saying that we should condone breaking mitvot, but the more liberal wings do seem to be better at reaching out to others (tzedakah, ‘tikkun olam’, etc.). They are more likely to reach out to Kabbalah because of some spiritual connection that is apparently missing in regular Orthodoxy. If you took matzeveh figuratively as well as literally, would Orthodox (myself included) have to think/act differently than we do now?

    Comment by b_manoakh | September 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. Of course it can, and should be taken figuratively. The whole “My rabbi is greater than your Rabbi” argument is rubbish and frequently borders on lashon hara. I have had this issue with someone where I stated that I follwo the tuling of R’ Moshe Feinstein on an issue rather than the posek he likes. To me, it is immaterial; In Pirkei Avos is says “Aseh l’chah Rav”- not “Asel l’chah harav shel chaver”!

    The issue with Reform and the other liberal movements is, unfortunately, one that is fraught with issues. Depending on which posek you follow, the opinion will range from what you say – let them join in with orthodox programmes etc in the hope that they will accept the Orthodox hashkafa and return to authentic Judaism- to saying we should have zero to do with them even in poilitical and secular issues affecting the Jewish community as a whole. Most Orthodox communities go somewhere in between- cooperation and working together in secular and political platforms, but no religious interaction. This also has a practical basis- think of it in this sitaution: You have a combined minyan on a regular basis. The Orthodox men are regularly called up to lead the service, for aliyot, to open the ark, to wrap the Torah etc. None of the people from the liberal movements are evr give any of these honours, nor are any of them allowed to give a drosha. Great for the Orthodox attendees- but how would the liberal members react? Now lets say they did get these honours- the Orthodox walk out since they don’t know if the person is qualified to act on their behalf. A shaliach tsibur should be shomer mitzvos- is this liberal member shomer mitzvos? How about when women from the liberal ciommunity start demanding their turn?

    In short- such a minyan would not last as the Orthodox standards would end up isolating the liberal mebers unless they became (A positive outcome from the Orthodox viewpoint- not so from the liberal viewpoint). It is a very practical issue any time you would have a religious function across the different communities- it actually avoids a lot of infighting and bickering by Orthodox not associating with these movements on a religious level.

    The problem that they start looking to weird and drastic alternatives to find the spiritual element that they might feel is lacking is a problem. How does the Orthodox movement stop liberal Jews from reaching out to inappropriate learning? They have already rejected the religous approach of Orthodox- us trying to give it to them is unliekly to work. What I think would be useful is if more Orthodox shuls and organisations made classes available to liberal Jews on authentic Jewish thought and practices. Have knowledgeable teachers to interact with these classes, ones that can give the more interesting answers considering the hashkafa of those in the audience- that are more likely to be entranced by Midrash and Gematria than by pshat and halachic discourse. Maybe some would come, maybe they wouldn’t- but still think we should be trying.

    Comment by marcl1969 | September 14, 2009 | Reply

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