Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Devarim 30:11-14

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.

The Sumerian story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. involves Gilgamesh going beyond the sea and to high places as he tries to reconcile himself to the death of his beloved friend. Recall that in the Canaanite pantheon, Baal’s palace is the high mountaintops and he is a cloud-rider. Yam, the sea-god, competes with Baal for dominance.


“this commandment” refers to repentance. … And the reason to say this is because if your wanderers be in the edges of the heaven and you are in the hands of nations you will be able to return to God and to do all I [God] command to you today. Because this thing is not too esoteric or distant for you, but rather is very close to you to do it in every time and in every place. And this is the meaning of “in your mouth and in your heart do it”: That they should confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors with their mouths and return in their hearts to God and welcome onto themselves today the torah …


But the word is very near to you — the Torah has been given to you in writing and orally.

Ibn Ezra

in your mouth, and in your heart: The essence of all the commandments is in one’s heart; but they also entail deeds, so that one may recall them with the words of one’s mouth.

Rashi understands these verses literally — the words are close because you can hold the written and oral Torah. Ramban sees it theologically — we can do Teshuvah at any time and place. How would describe Ibn Ezra’s statement? Why is it important that mitzvot are deeds — physical actions?

How is this different from seeking meaning through myth? (Jews have myths too — but what is Moses saying to us about where to find meaning?)

Devarim 30:15-20

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life—if you and your offspring would live— by loving the LORD your God

Ibn Ezra

The phrase that you may live may mean living corporeally, or it may mean to live on in memory. Scripture then proceeds to explain that to love is the purpose of life.

Why might Ibn Ezra distinguish between physical life and memory? How does loving God mean that the purpose of life is to love? Thinking about Gilgamesh’s struggle to find meaning after the death of his friend, what is Moses’ answer (via Ibn Ezra). 

As we approach the High Holidays, what lessons does this provide us about how to live our lives?


Or Torah Synagogue (Akko, Israel) stained glass

Ilana Shkolnik via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project