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Nitzavim-Vayelekh Sermon

We are nearing the completion of the Torah.  We read the words also read on Yom Kippur morning in Reform shuls.  “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29)

This passage is a remarkable statement that Torah is given in every generation.  Torah must be forever renewed.  It was not given only back then.  It is given in each and every day, in each and every generation.  That is what we also celebrate when we mark Simhat Torah.  We renew our commitment to Torah as we begin the reading schedule again.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was asked: Why does every tractate of Talmud begin on the second page?  (The first page is not alef, but instead bet.”  He answered: “However much we learn, we should always remember that we have not even reached the first page.”  The greatest lesson of Torah is that it is never complete.  We are always starting again.

Very soon we will also of course celebrate Rosh Hashanah. This period marks the time of introspection and repentance.  This idea is connected to a verse in this week’s Torah portion. “Hidden acts concern the Lord our God; but revealed acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29)

We spend a good deal of time arguing about people’s intentions.  She didn’t mean it…                    He is only being nice because…  Torah reminds us that when it comes to intentions only God can know them.  We instead must focus on actions and deeds.  We can only judge people by what they do or don’t do.  Judaism does not  for example believe that the act of tzedakah is tainted if someone gives for the wrong reason.  Even if a gift is given to gain honor, or to get an end of year tax deduction, the gift is not negated.  It still helps someone, or an institution, in need.  We can only judge the act of tzedakah not the intention with which it is given.

We can only judge ourselves even by what we do or don’t do.  The High Holidays are thus about working to do better.  We can’t just resolve to do better or promise to correct our mistakes.  We have to make the effort to change.

Repentance in Hebrew is teshuvah.  It is about turning.  It is not a matter of the heart, it is a matter of the hands.  Let us use these weeks wisely to turn and better our lives.  To better ourselves.  To correct our failings.  And to repair our relationships.