In Living Color

Parashat Nitzavim 5779

by Meir Sendor

This is the third time we’ve visited Melbourne, Australia, and we continue to be impressed by the friendly and sensibly relaxed lifestyle of this far outpost of the Jewish world. We also find the differences in plant and animal life fascinating. Australia, as its own continent with its own thriving ecosystem protected by oceans and by law, has developed species of flowers and trees and birds and animals that are unique on the planet, reminding us of the vibrant diversity of life.

Vibrant life is also a core theme of Rosh HaShanah that is just around the corner, and a core theme of this week’s parashah. On Rosh HaShanah and on through Yom Kippur we add to our Amidah prayers our request that God “remember us for life, King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O living God.” This request for life can feel anxious, even desperate, especially in the context of the essential midrashic theme of Rosh HaShanah that depicts the day in terms of a heavenly court session in which our lives hang precariously in the balance. That vision has rhetorical power to motivate us to improve ourselves, and, translated into the spiritual terms of heaven, is real. But in this week’s parashah, Moshe Rabbenu also gives us another perspective on our lives that offers some encouragement in the face of this anxious scene.

The parashah concludes with a rousing exhortation from Moshe Rabbenu:

 דברים פרק ל

טו) ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע:

יט) העדתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך:

כ) לאהבה את יקוק אלהיך לשמע בקלו ולדבקה בו כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך לשבת על האדמה אשר נשבע יקוק לאבתיך לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב לתת להם: פ


See, I have placed before you this day life and good, and death and evil… I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day: life and death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse – so choose life, so that you shall live, you and your descendants. To love HaShem your God, to listen to His voice and to adhere to Him, for He is your life and length of your days, to dwell on the Land that HaShem your God swore to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov to give to them.

There is iron in Moshe’s words of death, and there is iron in his words of life. The Ramban comments “He tells them that there are two paths in their hands and their control, to follow whichever they desire, and there is none to prevent or hinder them, not from among those below nor those above.” The path of death is “if you turn aside your heart and do not listen and go astray and bow to other deities and worship them (Dt. 30:16).”  The path of life is “to love HaShem your God, to walk in His paths, to keep His mitzvot, statutes and laws (Dt. 30:15).”

So avoid the dead emptiness of false deities and choose life by loving God and following the path of God, the path of Torah. It sounds like a no-brainer. Following the disciplined path of Torah and mitzvot in the midst of the vagaries of life has its challenges, but it is well-enough defined by the halakhic tradition and it’s doable. But to love God, to really love God – that means to have a real sense of God. And following the path of Torah and mitzvot alone, without this love, risks an emptiness and falseness of its own. Maimonides, in Hilkhot Tshuvah, cautions:

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק י הלכה ו

דבר ידוע וברור שאין אהבת הקדוש ברוך הוא נקשרת בלבו של אדם עד שישגה בה תמיד כראוי ויעזוב כל מה שבעולם חוץ ממנה, כמו שצוה ואמר בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, אינו אוהב הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא בדעת שידעהו, ועל פי הדעה תהיה האהבה אם מעט מעט ואם הרבה הרבה, לפיכך צריך האדם ליחד עצמו להבין ולהשכיל בחכמות ותבונות המודיעים לו את קונו כפי כח שיש באדם להבין ולהשיג


It is well-known and clear that the love of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not bound in the heart of a person until they meditate on it continually as is appropriate, and abandon everything in the world but that, as He commanded saying “with all your heart and all your soul.” One does not love the Holy One, blessed be He, except with the knowledge by which one knows Him. According to the knowledge will be the love, if little, little, if much, much. Therefore a person should focus themselves to understand and comprehend the wisdoms and understandings that inform them of their Creator according to the power of a person to understand and comprehend.

Maimonides sets a high bar for love of God, and raises it higher in his Guide of the Perplexed:

Those who think of God and frequently mention His Name, without any correct notion of Him, but merely following some imagination, or some theory received from another person, are, in my opinion, those who remain distant [from God]. They do not mention the name of God in truth, nor do they reflect on it. That which they imagine and mention does not correspond to any being in existence: it is a thing invented by their imagination. The true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived (3:51).

If choosing life depends upon loving God in reality, true worship – where do we begin to find this loving connection? Moshe Rabbenu has given us the hint in the last verse of our parashah:

כ) לאהבה את יקוק אלהיך לשמע בקלו ולדבקה בו כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך לשבת על האדמה אשר נשבע יקוק לאבתיך לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב לתת להם: פ


To love HaShem your God, to listen to His Voice and adhere to Him, for He is your life and length of your days…

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra has a brief, but extraordinary, comment on this verse:

אבן עזרא דברים פרק ל פסוק כ

(כ) כי הוא חייך – על דעת המפרשים, שהוא שב אל קול השם. ולפי דעתי, שהוא השם,


“For He is your life” – according to the opinion of the commentators this refers to the Voice of HaShem. According to my opinion, it is HaShem.

Ibn Ezra acknowledges that there are rabbinic opinions that avoid the straightforward interpretation, which seems radical, and opt for a more restrained reading, that “your life” depends on heeding God’s Voice, a reading based on the text of the siddur, in the blessing for the gift of Torah we say before the Shema, which paraphrases the verse in our parashah:

 סדר רב עמרם גאון (הרפנס) תפילת ערבית

נשיח בחוקיך ונשמח בדברי תורתך ובמצותיך לעולם ועד, כי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו


We will meditate on Your statutes and rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your Mitzvot forever, for they are our lives and length of our days.

Fair enough: Torah and mitzvot are God-given wisdom, helping us to navigate the challenges of life and to endure. But Ibn Ezra faces into the straightforward and radical reading: HaShem is your life and your length of days. Moshe Rabbenu’s amazing statement is echoed by Nechemiah:

נחמיה פרק ט

(ו) אתה הוא יקוק לבדך אתה עשית את השמים שמי השמים וכל צבאם הארץ וכל אשר עליה הימים וכל אשר בהם ואתה מחיה את כלם וצבא השמים לך משתחוים:


You are HaShem alone, You made the heavens and the heavens of the heavens and all their hosts, the earth and all that is upon it, the seas and all that is in them, and You enliven them all and the hosts of the Heavens bow to You.

And in the siddur, too, in the prayer Yishtabach, God is called “Life of the worlds.” The kabbalistic tradition does not shy away from this approach either.

Ibn Ezra left his comment brief, and that was probably wise. Any attempt to spell this out more explicitly risks overstatement or understatement. But at the very least, Moshe Rabbenu’s assertion directs us to realize that our lives are not just a detached, ephemeral biological bubble. Our lives are rooted directly, continually and inalienably in God, Living God, in some way. Moshe tells us: “to love HaShem your God… for He is your life and length of your days.” When we realize that our lives are held in place, not by us, a continual gift directly connected somehow with God Himself, Living God, closer than close to us, we really can begin to feel personal, intimate love for God in truth. This can even help calm our nerves as we approach Rosh HaShanah: whatever our destiny, our lives are held by God Himself and His care is integral to who we are, it is guaranteed. And as we look around at all the life around us, flowers and trees and birds and animals and creatures of all kinds, we can feel a vast kinship with this amazing world that God enlivens, in which we find ourselves and in which we belong.



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