Parashat Nitzavim

The Time Is Now: Rosh Hashanah

By Rabbi Yaakov Mencken

“And G-d remembered Sarah as He had said, and G-d did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived, and she gave birth to a child to Avraham, a son to his old age, in the time which G-d had told him.”

[Genesis 21:1-2]

Why do we read this Torah portion on Rosh HaShanah? How does it add to our observance of the Day of Judgement, our consciousness of G-d’s Kingship, or our obligation to desist from sin and to return to Him and His ways?

The Talmud [Rosh Hashanah 11a] says that G-d “remembered” both Sarah and Chanah on Rosh Hashanah, answering their prayers to have children. Therefore the Torah reading on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah concerns the birth of Yitzchak, while the Haftorah concerns Chanah’s prayer and the birth of her son, the prophet Shmuel. By reading these portions, we not only recall their greatness, but we inspire ourselves to pray as they did.

If we are searching, however, for a lesson in repentance from the Torah reading, it is easily found — just from an unexpected source. In our parsha, it is Yishmael, the evil child whom Avraham was forced to expel from his home, who is our model.

“And G-d heard the voice of the child, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from the heavens, and it said to her, ‘what is your trouble, Hagar, do not fear, for G-d has heard the voice of the child, according to where he is now.’” [21:17]

The Torah uses an unusual expression — “according to where he is now.” These words teach us a profound lesson: G-d judges each person’s current behavior and mindset, regardless of the past or future. A person is judged “according to where he is now.”

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki )explains: “[Yishmael] is judged according to his actions now, and not according to what he will do in the future. The ministering angels were accusing him and saying, ‘Master of the World, someone whose children will kill your children with thirst in the future, to him, you raise a well?’ And He answered them, and asked, ‘Right now, what is he: a righteous person, or an evil person?’ And they answered him, ‘Righteous.’ And He said to them, ‘According to his actions now, I judge him, and this is “according to where he is now.”‘”

When it comes to a holiday such as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, many people feel like hypocrites, or at least insincere. “How can I go and ask forgiveness, what I am just going to go back to the same behavior tomorrow?” To a certain extent, this sentiment is correct. If a person is planning to commit a crime tomorrow, then he can hardly go before G-d today and claim to regret all the evil he has ever done.

This is only true, however, where the person is actually planning to do this. If a person genuinely feels regret, and wants to change, and resolves to change, then the fact that she has been making the same resolution for the last 15 years — and breaking it — isn’t relevant. What is relevant is what she is thinking now.

Even if you have been confronting the same character flaws, the same misbehavior, the same problems every year — that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you resolve to solve these problems once and for all, and pray throughout Rosh Hashanah that G-d give you the strength and support to meet your goal. Don’t worry about what happened last year, or the year before. The time is now.

facts of life: take this serious

Overcoming Impossible Obstacles

כי‭ ‬המצוה‭ ‬הזאת‭ ‬אשר‭ ‬אנכי‭ ‬מצוך‭ ‬היום‭ ‬לא‭ ‬נפלאת‭ ‬הוא‭ ‬ממך‭ ‬ולא‭ ‬רחקה‭ ‬הוא

‮…‬‭ ‬כי‭ ‬קרוב‭ ‬אליך‭ ‬הדבר‭ ‬מאד‭ ‬בפיך‭ ‬ובלבבך‭ ‬לעשתו

“For this commandment that I command you today – It is not hidden from you and it is not distant…Rather, the matter is very near to you.” (Devarim 30: 11-14)

In this week’s parsha, Nitzavim, it is said (Devarim 30:11-14): “For this commandment that I command you today – It is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘Who can send to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’  Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’  Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”  Nachmanides (Ramban) understands that these verses refer to the mitzvah of Teshuvah, repentance.  Thus, the Torah is informing us that this mitzvah is not beyond our capabilities. Rather, one can perform the mitzvah of Teshuvah in any place and at any time.

One must wonder why the Torah needs to elaborate on the mitzvah of Teshuvah by stating that the mitzvah is not distant, is not in the heavens and is not on the other side of the sea. Would it not have been sufficient to state that one should repent and that it is simple to do so?  Why is it necessary for the Torah to dramatize the difficulties that one may face when attempting to perform the mitzvah of Teshuvah?


The story is told of a man who was walking in Tel Aviv when he was approached by a religious man who was seeking a tenth man to complete a minyan, a quorum for prayer.  The man kept walking, but the religious man ran after him, pestering him to help out until he finally acquiesced.  Upon entering the shul (synagogue), the non-religious man watched with fascination as the men recited Ashrei and Kaddish, and then all the men began swaying back and forth while reciting the Shmoneh Esrei (The Amidah prayer).  The man, who had never witnessed such behavior before, was fascinated by what he saw, started to attend services on a regular basis, and over the course of time, eventually became fully observant.  Friends of his father who had heard the story about the son and his religious transformation wanted to confirm the story with the father. The father confessed that there was more to the story than met the eye. “The truth is,” said the father, “my father was religious back in Europe and had subsequently made his way to Tel Aviv.  I, however, left the path of my father and raised my son without religious observance. The shul where my son entered for the very first time in his life was the very same shul in which my father used to pray.  I honestly believe that it was in the merit of my father’s prayers that my son was drawn back there, and that is what led him to follow his grandfather’s path.”

In describing the challenges a person may face in an effort to repent, the Torah is perhaps teaching us that one may find the process daunting.  From a logical perspective, the various environmental obstacles may indeed make repentance appear to be impossible. The verse therefore informs us that G-d can make our seemingly impossible obstacles disappear, with Teshuvah being literally close – i.e. easily achievable.  During this time of year when Jews traditionally stop to reflect on their commitment to Jewish study and observance, it is encouraging to know that G-d is, so to speak, “there for us” to help us overcome whatever obstacles we face on the path of spiritual growth – social, financial, familial or geographical. These challenges may seem too far-fetched or difficult for us. Nothing, however, is beyond G-d


The Big Secret

About Rosh HaShanah

The Torah does not tell us what happens on Rosh HaShana like it tells us by Yom Kippur and the other Yomim Tovim.  All it says is that it is a Yom Teruah, a day to blow Shofar, but gives no reason why.  Even in Tehilim where we find that Hashem sits in judgment on Rosh HaShana it is very vague, saying only (Tehilim 81:4), “BaKeseh L’Yom Chageinu”, on the Yom Tov that the moon is hidden, which is Rosh HaShana.

Rav Yehonathan Eibushitz explains (Yaarot Dvash Drush 5) that there is a big Kitrug(an accusatory voice in the Heavenly Court) on Klal Yisroel from the Satan because the Mitzvot that the non-Jews keep, they are much stricter and more adherent than we are.  We see this from the gemara (Kidushin 31a) when theRabbis needed to find the best example of the lengths we must go to for Kibud Av V’Eim, the example they found was Dama ben Netina a non-Jew.  This is why Yonah HaNavi ran away.  He knew that the people of Ninveh would heed his words and do Teshuva, while Bnei Yisroel would not.  He was not willing to play into the hands of the Satan.

Rav Yehonathan Eibushitz says that if the nations of the world knew that Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment for them, they would do Teshuva far more than us, and they would mend their ways completely, while we do not.  This would create a great Kitrug on Klal Yisroel.  Since the other nations believe in Torah She Bichtav(Written Torah), Hashem did not make any mention of this in any place where they can see it in plain view and would answer the call.  Instead He put it only in Torah SheBaal Peh(Oral Torah), a place where they don’t look and don’t believe.  This saves Am Yisroel from a very unflattering and dangerous comparison to the other nations.

Parsha Summary

First Aliyah: On the final day of his earthly life, Moshe gathered all the Israelites—men, women, and children—to enter them into a covenant with G‑d.

Second Aliyah: This covenant established the Israelites as G‑d’s exclusive nation. The covenant, Moshe explained, was not limited to those who were physically present on that day; rather, it included all future generations of Jews as well.

Third Aliyah: Moshe warned the Israelites not to be tempted by the idolatrous lifestyles of the Egyptians and the other sundry nations through which they had passed in the course of their travels. Moshe warned of the dire consequences which will befall the individual, family or tribe which would forsake their covenant with G‑d. This section concludes with the concept of communal responsibility for not appropriately punishing individual sinners.

Fourth Aliyah: Moshe informed the Israelites what will occur after they are exiled from their land due to their sins. Eventually they will wholeheartedly return to G‑d, and G‑d will gather them from the furthest reaches of the heavens and return them to the land of their forefathers. At that point, Moshe says, “G‑d will ‘circumcise’ your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you may love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Fifth Aliyah: When G‑d gathers His people’s exiles, the curses which accompanied them throughout their sojourn in foreign lands will be placed upon their enemies who persecuted them. The Israelites will once again serve G‑d, and will be blessed with abundance in the work of their hands, the fruit of their wombs, the fruit of their land and the fruit of their livestock.

Sixth Aliyah: Moshe enjoins the people to follow the Mitzvot, informing them that “it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Seventh Aliyah: Moshe tells the Jewish people that they have been given free choice to choose between good and evil, life and death. Their choice will determine whether they are the beneficiaries of G‑d’s blessings or curses. Moshe implores the Israelites to choose life.

simcha corner

Little Avi Romberg got on the elevator in the Empire State Building in New York City with his father. They started going to the top. Avi watched the signs flashing as they went by the floors: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70.

They kept going, and Avi started getting nervous. He took his daddy’s hand and said, “Daddy, does Hashem know we’re coming?