Community Torah Corner, September 8, 2023

Rabbi Danny Nevins
Head of School
Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Our first Shabbat of the school year is also the final Shabbat of the Jewish year, and it is fittingly a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelekh. In chapter 30 Moses reassures the Jewish people that while the commandments they have received are challenging, they are not beyond their grasp. 

This message is most appropriate as our students commence the school year. As I told the Upper School on our first day, there are many challenges before them – academic, athletic, artistic and more. None of these are beyond their grasp if they remember a more foundational challenge – to love themselves and to love one another. This commandment is the centerpiece of the Torah and the verse that we have placed on a banner at the entrance to the Upper School: “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”

What’s love got to do with it? Isn’t the point of life to do the right thing? Shouldn’t we measure ourselves by deeds more than emotions? I think you know the answer – the heart directs the body. When we allow ourselves to express positive emotions, to show concern for the people around us and to let go of negativity, then our body naturally follows with loving actions. This truth is explained by the 11th century sage Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakuda in his book, “Duties of the Heart” (חובות הלבבות): “I know for certain that the obligations of the body can never be completed without a heart and soul that are willing to do them.”

Moses says that a virtuous life is not up in heaven, nor across the sea, “but is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” He says that if we turn toward God, then God will open our hearts and the hearts of our children to love, and therefore to live. 

As I witnessed new and returning students arriving at our two campuses this week, I detected traces of first-day jitters on some of their faces. But then I saw the warm welcome that they received from our extraordinary staff and how each student lit up. The new year of 5784 will be filled with triumphs and challenges, failures and rebounds, and it is all good – if we can remember to open our hearts to one another. I wish our entire community a year of sweetness and joy, of healthy relationships and great accomplishments. Shanah tovah!