The following is based in part on concepts from Rav Dessler, Rav Nebenzal and the Stutchiner Rebbe. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh – just please not during Tefilos!
As we have been taught, there is a famous concept called ‘HaKriya Me’oreres Es HaZman’ – the concepts that flow from the weekly Parsha are always interfacing with and relating to the events on the Jewish calendar. ‘The Scripture is inspiring the Season.’ This being said, we need to search for how it is that Parshas Nitzavim is preparing us for the awe-inspiring day of Rosh HaShanah which arrives in all of its glory this upcoming week.
We need not look very far. Chazal revealed to us that the powerful content of this week’s Parsha was delivered by Moshe Rabeinu on Rosh HaShanah. Let’s examine some of this relationship.
The Passuk says, “Re’eh; Nasati Lifanecha HaYom Es HaChayim V’Es HaTov V’Es HaMaved V’Es HaRa.” ‘See – I a have placed before you today the life and the good and the death and the evil.’ This famous exhortation culminates with the even more famed punchline: “U’Bachartem BaChayim” – ‘And you will choose life.’ We would typically assume that the following ultimatum has been laid down. On the one hand there is good and life, on the other side lays evil and death: You know what to do.
While this level of understanding is undoubtedly true, perhaps we can suggest a slightly shifted perspective on “Re’eh; Nasati Lifanecha HaYom Es HaChayim V’Es HaTov V’Es HaMaved V’Es HaRa.” And in order to this we need to travel back to Gan Eden.
Hashem commanded Adam HaRishon to eat of all the trees but to refrain from the Eitz HaDa’as Tov V’Ra. Chazal explain that these were Adam HaRishon’s only two Mitzvos: Don’t eat from this tree. Do eat from all of the others. While it is true that each Tree in Garden served a unique role, the Tree that diametrically opposed the Eitz HaDa’as Tov V’Ra was the Eitz HaChayim – The Tree of Life. We know this to be true because the verses describe both of them as being centrally located in the middle of the Garden surrounded by all the others.
Okay, so God said not to eat from the Eitz HaDa’as Tov Ra. But we need to ask ourselves an important question: What’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil? Wouldn’t it be great if we always knew the difference between right and wrong? Adaraba! Let’s say just the opposite! It should have been a Mitzvah to eat from the Eitz HaDa’as! The existential clarity that Adam HaRishon should have attained would logically be encouraged – not turned into a history-shattering offense! And yet, it was. So what happened?
These two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, each offered a possible shift in Adam HaRishon’s grasp of reality, and more importantly, Adam HaRishon’s relationship to Ratzon Hashem (the Divine Will).
The Eitz HaDa’as would turn right and wrong into theoretical concepts of Good and Evil; concepts which are up to debate. The Eitz HaDa’as Tov V’Ra gives a person the ability to ascertain and determine what is Good and what is Evil. Once this becomes an option, once Ratzon Hashem become a philosophical conversation that remains outside of a person, the possibility for biases to come and cloud judgment becomes a reality. Two people can look at the same situation and one will see good while the other will see evil. This in of itself is the most massive desecration of God’s name that is possible. God is God. His desires should not be up for debate. But once Adam HaRishon has his worldview altered by the Eitz HaDa’as Tov V’Ra this became the reality. ‘A sin can be Ra, it can be bad - but give me a break on this one – it’s convenient.’
If the Eitz HaD’as turns Ratzon Hashem into matters of good and evil, then the Eitz HaChayim would have brought Adam HaRishon to a place where all spirituality would be seen as a matter of life and death. Just as a person cannot hold his breath until he passes out, so to sin would be seen as a non-option. Just as one is incapable of voluntarily stopping his heart from pumping; so too separation from the Divine would have been seen as an impossibility.
Adam HaRishon lowered the bar dramatically. How do we perceive what is right versus what is wrong? How do we relate to what is true versus what is false? This is what was up for grabs when Adam HaRishon was presented with the two Trees. Every bias, every skewed judgment, every single philosophical error comes from this history-shifting moment.
Rectification would logically require bringing the global consciousness to the level of Life and Death as opposed to that of Good and Evil. And this was the goal of receiving the Torah at Sinai. Let’s explain.
Once Adam HaRishon was kicked out of Gan Eden he realized what we just mentioned. He understood that connecting to the Tree of Life would fix his damaged perception that resulted from the Tree of Knowledge. He saw what the verse calls the Derech Eitz HaChayim – the way back to the Tree of Life. But God said, ‘Not so fast.’ And he blocked off that path with Angels armed with fiery swords.
Reb Tzadok HaKohen teaches us that the most natural and intrinsic understanding of any given word is based on its first expression in the Torah. Derech Eitz HaChayim is the first appearance of the word Derech - Path. This teaches us that a true Path is one that returns us to the Eitz HaChayim.
When the Jews were on their way to Har Sinai they were attacked by Amalek. The Passuk describes this as, “Asher Karcha BaDerech” – They came upon you on the Derech – on the way. Now we understand the tremendous depth: the path to Har Sinai was itself the Derech Eitz HaChayim! If the way to the Har Sinai was the Derech, then how do I know that the Torah is Eitz HaChayim? Well, how often do we sing the sweet melody as the Torah returns to the Aron Kodesh… Eitz Chayim Hi LaMachazikim Ba… It is a Tree of Life for those who grab hold of it*. The National Pressence at Sinai was an opportunity to culminate the journey of the Derech Eitz HaChayim. We could have fixed it all, but because of the Golden Calf we didn’t.
But there is no need to despair – we can still get the job done. Let’s figure out how.
Rosh HaShanah is the day of Malchus. On Rosh HaShanah we declare that Hashem Hu HaMelech – He’s the King. What are we really accomplishing with this declaration?
The sin of the Eitz HaDa’as occurred on Rosh HaShanah. Therefore, on this day, more than any other we are coming to fix that problem at its source. We know that Jewish law dictates that when it comes to king flesh and blood, every decree carries with it the death penalty. Every statute is a matter of life and death. When we see the king right before our eyes there is no room for discussion. Not adhering is not an option. Chazal tell us that our fear of the King in Heaven should be as real as our fear of a king who walks the earth. Thus, on Rosh HaShanah, when re-enforce that He is the King, things switch from the Eitz HaDa’as perspective and move to the Eitz HaChayim outlook – it’s no longer up for discussion. Ratzon Hashem is do or die.
Perhaps we can suggest that this is what Moshe Rabeinu is saying to the Jews: “Re’eh; Nasati Lifanecha HaYom Es HaChayim V’Es HaTov V’Es HaMaved V’Es HaRa.” ‘See – I a have placed before you today the life and the good and the death and the evil.’ Until now we saw it as Good and Life verses Evil and Death. But maybe it could be that Moshe is preparing Am Yisrael for the choice that needs to be made on Rosh HaShanah. Do you see the world as Tov and Ra, or do you see it as Chayim and Maves?
Re’eh; Nasati Lifanecha HaYom Es HaChayim V’Es HaTov – The Life and the Good. What does this mean? When a Mitzvah comes my way how do I look at it? Is it something good to do? Is it an optional bonus? Or is it Chayim - the air that I need to live.
V’Es HaMaved V’Es HaRa. And when a spiritual-pitfall present itself, what is my attitude? Is it bad? Well, bad can be overpowered by convenience or lust. But what if it’s deadly poison?
When the King makes the decree then the choice it obvious. It’s either deadly poison or breathing fresh, invigorating air. Rosh HaShanah is about reminding ourselves about the King. That realization pulls us back onto the Derech Eitz HaChayim.
How sweet it is, how enlightened is a life that is totally suffused and immersed with Ratzon Hashem. How lofty is the person who knows that every Mitzvah is Mamesh an elixir. How blessed is he in feeling that his relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu is as real and crucial to him as the blood that pumps from his heart.
Gevalt. Rosh HaShanah offers me the opportunity to get on the Derech Eitz HaChayim. When I pound home the message that Ki Anu Avdecha V’Atah Adoneinu I begin to align the universe. When I sing with my whole heart and soul Ki Anu Amecha V’Atah Malkeinu – you’re the King. Sometimes I forget, but not now. Now I see as clearly as the sun shines bright that Hashem Hu HaMelech. And with that dazzlingly vivid perception I go back into Gan Eden and I start to make things right again.
HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to access the immense energies and opportunities that are presenting themselves in this exalted moment in time. If we can then there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus – lives where we are truly living – moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!
* For more on how Har Sinai was supposed to shift our perspective to the way we are understanding the Eitz HaChayim, see the content that we learned for Parshas Shoftim of this year.