If you travel around the towns and villages of Britain, you will find in almost all of them one or more memorials to the dead of the First and Second World Wars. This is fitting in a country which lost so many of its citizens and suffered so much privation, in the first case in a war whose rationale the ordinary soldier was hard pressed to understand, in the second in a war for survival against the most evil of regimes. We see these memorials as part of the national landscape, a prop in the background to our lives. Now imagine living in the newly founded state of Israel, after Joshua took the people over the river Jordan. The monuments you would have seen standing at the entrance to the new land, like the British war memorials, built in stone, would have had inscribed upon them texts from Devarim. They would have reminded you of the instructions on how to build a just and harmonious society, of moral laws designed to guide you in the ways of righteousness and of contrasting blessings and curses to be earned for good or bad behaviour. Together with mezuzot, tefillin, tziztit, rituals and festivals, the stones would have been a constant reminder of Israel’s sacred mission. The blessings are as comforting as the curses are terrifying. They are given in Ki Tavo, which is followed by the double parsha for this week of Nitzvaim and Yayelekh.
They are standing, listening to Moses’ final discourse, both those who hear the words at the time they were first spoken and the many, many generations of Jews who have come after, right up to us, and those who will come after us. It is suggested in Nitzvaim that we will forget the covenant, even though it is, or should be, “in your mouth and in your heart”. We will one day choose evil and we will reap the consequences. Yet there is a thread running through the parsha, which is carried along the haftorah, one of Seven Haftarot of Consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah. As we prepare to repent, or rather to return, to God, the awful curses, the foreboding of future evil, are softened by the promise of a return and of forgiveness. The haftarot, which are beautiful and poetic, all come from Isaiah. Our prophets are poets as well as righteous men.
Vayelekh – “then he went out” – as the first word of the parsha suggests moves towards the future and the impending leadership of Joshua. To find out more of this and of the preceding parsha, come along this Saturday at 10:30 am. Liz Berg will light up the majestic words of two of the most inspiring parshiyot in the Torah.