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All For One and One For All

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parshat Nitzavim and Parshat Veyelech are read together this Shabbat.


You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day. That he may establish you today for a people to himself, and that he may be to you a God, as he has said to you, and as he has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath. But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day. (Deut. 29:9-14)

Thus Moses addresses the people on the banks of the River Jordan. The context and time of the talk is obviously of great importance as is evidenced by the amount of times the term "this day" is used.

Rashi makes note of this peculiarity, explaining that this was indeed a day of monumental importance:

We learn that Moses gathered them in front of God on the day of his death, in order to have them enter the covenant. (Rashi)

Moses who had been the leader from the very beginning of the Exodus was now to leave his charges, on the threshold of the Promised Land. This day was, therefore, a day of epic significance, for it would mark the day when the reins of leadership would be passed on to Joshua.




Rashi, when noting the significance of the day, adds that with Moses gone, a new covenant will need to be established. This second point is not immediately clear. Why would the demise of Moses, tragic as it may be, require a new covenant? Leaders come and go, why would it be necessary to reestablish a covenant at this juncture? Rashi comments on this first verse, explaining it according to the Aggada:

Because Israel was leaving from one leader to the next leader, from Moses to Joshua, therefore he made them as a monument in order to inspire them. (Rashi 29:12)

Note that the opening "you stand" in Hebrew atem nitzavim is interpreted by Rashi according to its more literal meaning as "monument" from the Hebrew matzeva. The Shem Mishmuel, offers a intricate explanation of this Rashi, assuming the term refers to a "monument" and we will follow that assumption, (although we must note that Rashi could be understood as simply referring to the idea of a "gathering").

Why would Moses' parting gift contain either a prohibited action, or even a literary reference to one?

But what is this monument? Furthermore, we recall that earlier on in the Torah we are told of a prohibition against building a matzeva, for it is "hated by God." (See Deut. 16:22.) Why would Moses' parting gift contain either a prohibited action, or even a literary reference to one?

Rashi complicates matters for us by adding another explanation for the term "today":

As this day is here, and is cloudy and light, so too, will (the day) enlighten you (now), and in the future it will enlighten you ... (Rashi 29:12)

This comment of Rashi is somewhat obscure, but, from what we can gather so far, on this day:


  • Moses dies,
  • Joshua takes over,
  • a new covenant is forged,
  • some type of monument is established, and,
  • it is bright yet cloudy.





Let us consider the reaction that the people must have had to the death of Moses. It was Moses who had given them hope, it was Moses who led the valiant march out of Egypt, it was Moses who taught them Torah.

Losing a leader and teacher like Moses was certainly traumatic. This day, despite the coronation of Joshua was not a happy day. "The king is dead, long live the king" is at best a bittersweet cry. Perhaps this is what Rashi is referring to when he speaks of the light and clouds.

Perhaps also, the light and relative light refer to Moses and Joshua, respectively. Elsewhere, Rashi uses the metaphor of light, when referring to Moses and Joshua. The context is when Moses is told of his impending death, and he responds a replacement must be found. God then directs:

'Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him. And set him before Eliezer the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put some of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may be obedient.' (Numbers 27:17-19)

As Rashi explains, this is the formal coronation of Joshua; and "some of your honor" means:

This is the ray of light on his face. (Rashi Bamidbar 27:20)

We, of course, recall the light which permeated the countenance of Moses when he came down from Sinai with the tablets the second time. Moses was instructed to give a part of this glory to Joshua, as a symbol of the leadership which he would soon assume.

Rashi continues:

Of your honor but not all of your honor, we find it taught that the face of Moses was like the sun while the face of Joshua was like the moon. (Rashi Bamidbar 27:20)




We see how different degrees of light are an appropriate description of the personalities of Joshua and Moses. Rashi's comments about the sun and the moon is a paraphrase from the Talmud. The passage reads as follows:

The elders of that generation said: "The countenance of Moses was like that of the sun; the countenance of Joshua was like that of the moon. Alas, for such shame! Alas for such reproach!" (Shavuot 39a)

Here, the fact that Joshua was compared to the moon is not seen as something great, rather it is a lament of the people of that generation who had been privileged to see the glory, the sun, of Moses. The light which emanated from Joshua was surely bright, but it did not shine like the light of Moses.

The light which emanated from Joshua was surely bright, but it did not shine like the light of Moses.

For those people an era had ended, the generation of Moses had come to an end. The death of any great leader creates a vacuum. Moses, the greatest leader and prophet whom the Jewish people ever had, was the defining factor of his generation -- a dor daayah, a "generation of knowledge." (See Zohar Shmot 62b.) Now the people have become the flock of Joshua, a great leader in his own right, the closest student of Moses, but nonetheless less than Moses.

This caused the people to lament the ascension of Joshua to leadership -- he was great but he was not Moses. What they may or may not have realized was that the death of Moses marked the end of this glorious generation -- a generation which had witnessed the plagues, the parting of the sea, the encounter with God at Sinai and countless other events.

The new generation led by Joshua, the one who would soon cross the Jordan, had undergone a subtle change with philosophical and legal implications.




There is a principle in Jewish law that all Jews are responsible for one another. This is not simply an expression of mutual concern and care, but includes such things as blessings as well. The implication is clear, the spiritual state of one Jew is interdependent with the spiritual state of the second Jew.

This spiritual reciprocity began as the Jews crossed the Jordan. It is part of the definition of the new generation who will capture and live in the Land of Israel. It is an expression of common destines of a people. It is a characteristic of Joshua's generation.

The Ritva, when explaining this idea, writes:

All Jews are mutually responsible ... all of Israel constitutes one body. (Ritva commentary Rosh Hashana 29a)

The Or Hachaim Hakadosh explains the new covenant formed at this point, along the same lines:

The objective of Moses in this covenant was to create mutual responsibility.

Now, as the Jews take leave of Moses, a new chapter will begin, one which includes the implementation of a new ideal. According to the Or Hachaim Hakadosh, this idea of mutual responsibility, also explains the words at the conclusion of the covenant:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah. (Deut. 29:28)

The Or HaChaim Hakadosh notes that mutual responsibility clearly includes that which is known -- in the open. The secret acts on the other hand, are of God's concern.




This idea of mutual responsibility can explain the reference to the matzeva, which Rashi alluded to. In Parshat Shoftim, where Rashi explains the difference between a matzeva, "a monument," and a mizbayach, "an altar," he states that a monument is made of one stone, while an altar is made of many stones or components. During the time of the forefathers, a matzeva was acceptable, now in the Torah, in the times of the children it has become unacceptable.

A monument signifies an individual approach to God, while an altar signifies the totality of the nation.

The explanation is as follows: a monument signifies one, an individual approaching God, while an altar signifies the totality of the Jewish people, all sorts of individuals gathered together, to form a beautiful mosaic.

During the time of the forefathers, individuals reflected the totality of Jewish life -- the generation of Abraham was Abraham. Spiritual giants who were individuals were able to approach God as individuals. But once the Jewish people become a nation, a matzeva became inappropriate.

Arguably Moses was the last individual, who represented the entire nation, as the Talmud teaches:

A rabbi was once expounding the Scripture, the congregation became drowsy. In order to rouse them he said: "One woman in Egypt brought forth six hundred thousand at a birth." There was a certain disciple there named Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Jose, who said to him: "Who can that have been?" He replied: "This was Yocheved who bore Moses who was counted as equal to six hundred thousand of Israel, for so it says, Then sang Moses and the children of Israel (Exodus 15:1); And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses (Numbers 1:54); And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses (Deut. 34:10)." (Midrash Rabbah, The Song of Songs 1:65)

Moses represents the entire nation, but once he dies, the entire nation becomes responsible for one another spiritually. It is true that the nation is still made up of many individuals, who will need to coalesce in order to form a cohesive whole, but one of the last lessons which Moses teaches is that ultimately we are one people, gathered together, to reflect the unity and interdependency.

The one body described by the Ritva is mirrored by the matzeva described by Rashi (and the Shem MiShmuel).




With Moses gone, perhaps the light does not shine as brightly, and this is what depresses the people. On the other hand, Rashi points out:

As this day is here, and is cloudy and light, so too, will (the day) enlighten you (now), and in the future it will enlighten you... (Rashi 29:12)

On the day of Moses' death, the light of Moses shining like the sun could be seen, and the light of Joshua shining like the moon could be seen as well. Perhaps this is what Rashi meant by the clouded light. But the people were told that now the light will be on them, and in the future it will be on them.

The light of Moses -- the greatness of Moses -- was his status as representative of God.

The light of Moses was diffused, surely much of the discernible light now was to be seen on the face of Joshua. But the light of Moses -- the greatness of Moses -- was his status as representative of God. With his death that light would be spread out among the people. The only way to get the light to shine forth, was when the people gather and form a whole. The light had now become the domain of the entire nation. This is represented by the mutual responsibility, and the spiritual reciprocity which it implies.

In the future, the light of Moses will once again dazzle us with its splendor. To bring this light forth, we must fulfill the commandments. Each and every Jew is involved in this process, for bits of light are spread about among all our people. (See the introduction of the Kitzot Hachoshen, for a similar concept). If we look around and it seems cloudy, or dark, it is simply because we have not as of yet succeeded in making the light shine.

Indeed: "Let there be light!"


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