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Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Teen Dvar Torah

I’m pleased to share Ayla Lieberman’s dvar torah, Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.

By Ayla Lieberman

What would you do if you were told you only had one more day to live? Would you believe it? After all, doctors can be wrong. What if it was G-d telling you?

G-d tells Moses that it’s time for him to die. According to one midrash, the 7th century Petirat Moshe or Midrash on the Death of Moses, Moses was scared to die. He begged to live, but then he realized that everything has to die in its time. First he tells G-d that he will be Joshua’s student; then he asks G-d to let him remain alive as a bird or a fish. G-d keeps saying no. Finally G-d shows him the land of Israel and G-d lets Moses see that the land will be good for the Israelites. Only then, when Moses sees that his people will be taken care of, can Moses die in peace.

So Moses knows he is going to die and has to choose a successor. Why Joshua? According to the midrash in Numbers Rabbah (21:16), G-d tells Moses that he should not choose his sons to succeed him because Moses’ sons, Gershon and Eliezer, don’t study Torah or put it into practice and they are not worthy of being leaders. G-d reminds Moses of Joshua’s good qualities like the fact that he asks a lot of good questions, that he loves to learn, and that he works hard, helps and protects Moses, and shows Moses honor. Joshua is committed to Moses and to Israel. This teaches us that in choosing a leader, character is the most important thing to consider.

Moses could also have chosen Pinchas, Aaron’s son, Moses’ nephew. Pinchas had shown his loyalty to Moses and to G-d when he murdered an Israelite who took a Midianite woman to his tent for sexual pleasure, violating Torah law. Rashi points out that Pinchas was rash, self-righteous and violent. He didn’t consult Moses. A good leader should not be impulsive or act in anger. According to Rashi, Joshua was careful, slow to act, a good judge, and respectful of other’s differences.

I think it is important to choose leaders based on the person’s attitude and abilities, as opposed to heritage. Sometimes the rightful heirs to something are not good people for the job. King Louis the 16th in France was the rightful heir to the throne, but he wasn’t a very good king. He didn’t care very much about the people. If someone else was chosen to be king, things might have gone better.

According to modern commentator Pinchas Peli, Moses chose Joshua to lead instead of his own sons or nephew because of Joshua’s courage. According to Peli, Moses knew that a true leader has to be able to lead his troops into battle but also has to be able to get them out of war and bring them home. Joshua could do both.

When G-d told Moses he was about to die and Joshua would lead the people into Israel, Moses stayed calm and set things in order. He gave his last teachings, handed the power of leading the people down to Joshua, and died. That takes a lot of courage.

I think one of the reasons why Moses had so much courage later in his life is because he had to do a lot of hard things. On Passover, he led all the Jews out of Egypt! That’s a lot of people to take care of!

Joshua was probably terrified of leading all the Israelites. I think I would be. If he was, what would it be that scared him: leadership or what he didn’t know about leading the Israelites?

Sometimes being scared can be a good thing. If people weren’t scared of anything, we would end up really hurting ourselves and each other. If we weren’t scared to die, we would probably end up accidently killing ourselves and each other.

When I was little, I was scared of everything I wasn’t sure about! I even thought my mom might be a crazy, green, alien monster in disguise who was waiting for the right time to eat me. Now I am much braver than I was 7 years ago, and I’m fairly sure my mom is not an alien, but I’m still afraid of lots of things.

When you think about it, everything takes courage. Even walking out of your own house takes a small amount of courage, though you may not realize it at the time. The famous poet Emily Dickenson was scared to walk out her own front door. In the last years of her life, she had trouble even leaving her room.

I think it’s not being sure about something rather than the thing itself that scares us. Maybe we are only afraid of the unknown because it feels weird and different.

One thing I’ve learned is that every time I do something that scares me, the next time I do it, it scares me less. For example, I was terrified of white water rafting! After our b’nai mitzvah class did it last year, I was less afraid, in fact I would like to go back and try it again. So I wonder – is courage something you’re born with, or does it increase over time? Or is it something you develop by pushing yourself to do things that scare you?

There is another midrash, in Deuteronomy Rabbah (9:9), about Moses not wanting to die and bargaining with G-d. When Moses and Joshua enter the mishkan, the tent that houses the Ark of the Covenant, they are separated by a pillar of cloud. When they go out, Moses asks Joshua what G-d said to him and Joshua replies: Did you tell me what G-d said when G-d spoke to you? Moses realizes that the leadership has passed to Joshua.

When Moses realized that Joshua really was the new leader, Moses couldn’t stand it! He was very jealous. Moses told G-d he would rather die than be so jealous of Joshua. Everyone gets jealous of other people sometimes, but is it really a good reason to want to die?

When I first started riding, the girl I took lessons with was leasing a pony that she was going to buy. I was so jealous! I wanted a pony more than anything and she was about to get one! At first, it seemed like I was the only kid who wanted a pony and couldn’t have one. After a while, I noticed that lots of people wanted ponies and couldn’t afford them. Then I was just happy to have my lessons. In fact, for my bat mitzvah project, I am volunteering at the summer camp where I take lessons, helping other kids learn to ride.

I know a lot of people who have lost good friends because of jealousy. Jealousy isn’t worth dying for, and it isn’t worth losing a friend over either.

It’s not always easy to be brave and to not feel jealous of other people, but all you can do is try. If you try it almost always pays off. Whoever said life is easy? Because it’s not!

At the end of parshat Nitzavim, Moses says to the Israelites: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! (30:19)

It is almost Rosh HaShannah, a time when we reflect on our actions in the past year and think about how we want to act in the new year. I think it is important to remember that we have a choice about what kind of person we want to be. When I want to act, I can choose to be rash, like Pinchas- or carefully cautious like Joshua. I can decide not to try to do things that scare me (but that I am pretty sure are really safe) or I can push myself to do more and find out whether I am really afraid or just afraid of the unknown. I can be bitter and jealous or happy with what I have.

Every day in Elul, we recite Psalm 27 where it says: Hazak v’ameytz libecha – be strong and resolute! Not only is this in Psalm 27, but it is also the same advice Moses gave Joshua. We should remember to be courageous and make the right choices in the New Year. Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As I become a bat mitzvah and take my place as a leader among the Jewish people, I hope to have the courage of Joshua, and do the right thing.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.

I have learned so much from my family and friends and teachers. So many people helped me get here today.

Ben Zoma also says: Who is rich? The person who is content with what he has. I think I am pretty rich!

Yasher koach, Ayla! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults.  Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome.  For more information, please email editor@boulderjewishnews.org.

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