Friday, September 03, 2010

Parshiot Nitzavim and Vayelech / פרשיות נצבים-וילך

"אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם--וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ: מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ."
"You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel; Your infants, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water."
(Deuteronomy, 29: 9-10)

This week we read two Parshiot - Nitzavim and Vayelech. Parshat Nitzavim details the end of Moshe's lengthy speech; a speech that spans a good few weeks' readings.

At first glance, the opening words of the first of this week's two parshiot, quoted above, seem straightforward and formulaic enough. The Ohr HaChayaim notes something interesting, however. Drawing on the word kulchem, (all of you) he asks why is it that we then have a list of who all these people are? Surely the phrasing before was enough?

The answer the Ohr HaChayim gives is simple, but has deep ramifications for us, especially at this time of year. It is imperative for us to understand that although we are being judged individually, we are also judged as a unit. As Jews, we have a collective responsibilty. If we look at the list, we see that infants, women and strangers are all listed here. Typically, we regard these groupings of people as ones that are obligated to a lesser extent, if at all, to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah. But here, these groups are mentioned in order to make a clear point about responsibility - no one is excluded.

I was listening to a recording to a shiur by Rebbetzin Heller earlier this week, and she mentioned something that many of us know in our heart of hearts; contemporary judicial systems are totally corrupt. When judging in accordance with Torah law, it is forbidden to judge the person; one must judge only the deed. This sounds obvious, but this concept is not shared in America, England, even here in Israel. Modern law systems refuse to judge the deed alone; they judge the person.

By way of comparison, Torah law dictates that we do not pay attention to personal circumstances; a crime is a crime. (Of course, we find ways to be lenient, but that's something else.) We are forbidden from dealing at the person; there's only dealing at the reality of the facts of the case. All else is extraneous.

Judaism forbids judges from looking at personal circumstance for a very good reason; if it is allowed, law becomes wholly subjective and relativistic. Compare this approach to common law systems and we see that they belie an assumption that we have no right to judge. By backing away from making harsh judgments when necessary, law is not properly upheld. The effect of this is to make law totally subjective.

Coming back to the quote at the beginning of the parsha, I would like to connect the two ideas. There may be instances in life when we are not obliged to act in a certain way, or are required to fulfill certain mitzvot, as is the case with the infants, women and strangers. Nevertheless, despite the supposedly extenuating circumstances, we are never absolved of our responsibilty toward others. The point is an exceptionally powerfui one; even when personally relieved of duties, we are fully responsible for enabling others to do theirs. If other people fail in their goals, we have to ask ourselves why we didn't do more to help them.

Based on a shiur given by Rav Ari Heller of Yeshivat Hakotel.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

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