On the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah we read Parshiyot Nitzavim/ Vayelech.
In the final days of his 120-year life, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people: “Behold, I have placed before you today that which is life and that which is good; that which is death and that which is evil… And you shall choose life, in order that you and your children shall live” (Devarim 30: 15–19).
The Midrash says that Hashem offered us two choices and then instructed us to “choose life.” Hashem says this command is “lifnim mishurat hadin” — beyond the letter of the law. It seems to be an offer of good advice. Why is it referred to as such a great favor beyond the letter of the law?
In Parashat Bechukotai the passuk says: “If you will walk in my statutes and keep my commandments and do them” (Vayikra 26:3). The question is: If the passuk verifies that we are keeping the mitzvot, doesn’t that imply automatically that we are doing them? Why repeat it?
A possible explanation is that the word “tishmeru” doesn’t mean “keep” the mitzvot. It’s akin to “Aviv shamar et hadavar” — his father kept the matter” (Beresheet 37:11). The Midrash is telling us: “If you make a mental note to keep my commandments — if you accept in principle to keep them — then I will consider it as if you have kept them.” Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, says Hashem said to us, “If you choose life then I will consider as if it was already done. If you simply accept in principle to observe my Torah, then I will consider it as if you’ve already done it.” To accept commitment as performance is “beyond the letter of the law.”
This Midrash is an encouraging thought for the Yom Hadin — Day of Judgment. When we consider the past year we know we have done a lot of good things but we also know we have fallen far short of what we could have done. This verse reveals to us that Hashem knows a complete change in behavior is very difficult to achieve. Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that Hashem doesn’t expect every flaw to be corrected instantaneously. What He will accept is a commitment to keep the Torah. If we commit, then He will consider it as if we have already done what we promised. As long as our vow is sincere, Hashem will accept it.
We should take advantage of this generous offer. We should all make that commitment to ourselves and to our Creator — to learn the Torah and to observe its commandments.
In hopes of a successful Rosh Hashanah and continued blessings of health, prosperity and peace for all the people of Israel, allow me to wish you Shanah Tovah with all the blessings of the Torah for you and your family and all the people of Israel. Amen.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.