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Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5769

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech
(Isaiah 61:10-63:9)
September 12, 2009
23 Elul 5769

This Shabbat\’s haftarah is the last of the seven special reading which bridge the period between Tisha b\’Av and Rosh Hashanah, known as Shivah d\’nehamtah (the seven of consolation). These haftarot seek to assure a wary nation of God\’s protection and concern. God\’s pledge is sometimes expressed quite visually: \”The Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm: Nevermore will I give your new grain to your enemies for food, nor will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have labored.\” (62:8)

God\’s vow was made with His right arm because the right arm represents God\’s strength and expressed His ability to carry out His pledge. The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yitzhak read this verse differently, fashioning from the apparent redundancy in the words: \’His right arm\’ – \’His mighty arm\’ an even more emphatic promise: \”Rabbi Abin son of Rabbi Ada in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak says: \’How do we know that the Holy One Blessed be He puts on tefillin? For it said: The Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm. \’By His right arm\’ – this is the Torah; \’And by their arm of His strength\’ – this is the tefillin.\” (adapted from Berachot 6a) Rabbi Yitzhak pictures God making His promise with both arms, one holding a Sefer Torah and the other wrapped in tefillin.

What are we to make of the image of God holding a Sefer Torah while taking an oath or wearing tefillin? A little further down the page in the Talmud we read: Rabbi Nahman bar Yitzhak said to Rabbi Hiyya bar Abin: \’What is written in God\’s tefillin?\’ He replied to him: \’And who is like Your nation Israel, a unique nation on earth? (1 Chronicles 17:21)\’ (Berachot 6a) Rabbi Shmuel Edels (Maharsha) has an interesting insight into the meaning of this imagery. He asserts that donning tefillin is the human way of asserting nearness to God – of allowing God\’s presence to dwell upon us… Similarly, God, [as it were], wears tefillin to express a similar intimacy with Israel.

In the same vein: Professor Y. Muffs notes from his research into the origins of biblical ideas: \”The wearing of the phylactery is a means of \’wearing\’ the divinity. One \’wears\’ God on one\’s head; one \’wraps\’ God on one\’s arm… The same means of coming close to the beloved is available to God, who wears Israel on His head and wraps Israel around His arm. To the extent that each of these symbolic gestures brings God and people closer, to that extent they are functionally and structurally equivalent.\” (Love and Joy, p. 53)

Rabbi Yitzhak wanted us to know that our relationship with God is reciprocal. God will do His part but we must also do ours. This is important to remember in this season of reconciliation.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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