Nitzavim: And What Do You Do?

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Rare is the person who measures his success by looking only at themselves, trying to determine how they can build on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. Instead, we tend to compare ourselves to others, measuring ourselves accordingly. While this “competition” has the potential to bring out the best in us, it runs the risk of allowing us to be complacent; satisfied with ourselves as long as we are better, or at least no worse, than others.

Tragically, we have a tendency to be easily satisfied in our spiritual pursuits. It is in the realm of material success that we often feel deprived, for no other reason than somebody else has something we do not.

Of course, our assessments of others are often mistaken, based as they must be on external criteria. Even if our assessments of the external factors are correct, they cannot take into account the individual factors that led each person to act as they do. Two people can do the exact same thing, but the assessment of their actions might be radically different. Such assessments can be made only by G-d.

It is for this reason, the Netziv explains, that the Torah goes into a lot of seemingly superfluous detail as it records the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. "You are all standing here today before G-d, your Lord, your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women and the proselytes in your camps, from your woodcutters to your water drawers, to bring you into the covenant of G-d, your Lord." (Devarim 29:9-10) Once we have been told that "all are standing here", why the need to mention any specific grouping?

Although all were committing themselves to the same covenant, each subgroup had a different role to play; and hence, a different set of Divine expectations to live up to.

It is the political and religious leaders of the Jewish people, the Netziv explains, who must have an extra dose of fear of the Almighty. All too often, people in positions of power (and religious leaders are not necessarily different) think they are somehow above the rules that apply to their followers. The obligations of leadership—to make painful decisions, decisions that will, by definition, hurt someone—highlight the need for pure motives. While such injury is unavoidable, hurting somebody to further a personal agenda is inexcusable.  Thus, Maimonides writes that those leaders who instil fear in others not for the sake of heaven lose their share in the world to come (Teshuva 3:6). Even with the best of motives, leaders are often powerless to effect positive change; therefore, it is their efforts that they should be judged by, not the results.  And only G-d can truly know their motivations. It is not by chance that the Torah commands that a King must have a Sefer Torah with him at all times. Leaders making difficult decisions must ask themselves not what people want, but rather what G-d demands. Blessed is the generation in which these two demands coincide.

Torah scholars must focus on the love of G-d. Teachers (and there is no such thing as a Torah scholar who is not a teacher) who lack passion and love for their subject cannot effectively inspire students. To love other people, one must get to know them. That's why true love grows throughout a good marriage; and loving G-d is no different. By studying G-d, i.e., His Torah, we can get to know Him and love Him that much more. 

Most of us, however, are neither leaders nor teachers of the Jewish people. Rather, we are the crucial backbone of the community, those who must practice Torah in the "real" world—a world which is often at odds with our values. The main function of the general populace is to serve G-d.

It is easy to serve G-d in the Beit Midrash. The true test of religiosity, however, is whether or not we have imbued our day-to-day life with the mitzvoth and values of Torah. After our 120 years, before G-d queries us regarding our devotion to Torah learning, He asks us if our monetary dealings were conducted faithfully. An honest businessperson, a dedicated health care worker, or a caring bureaucrat will often create a greater Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d's name, than any created in the Beit Midrash. May we merit having leaders who fear G-d, teachers who love G-d, and a community that serves G-d.