The Cedar and the Reed
All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel . . . — Deuteronomy 29:10
The Torah reading for this week is a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, from Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20. Nitzavim means “standing,” and Vayelech means “and he went.” The Haftorah is from Isaiah 61:10–63:9.
The Oak and the Reed is an Aesop’s fable about an oak tree and a reed in the middle of a great storm. The oak trusts in its great strength but is ultimately blown over and destroyed. The reed, though small and thin, bends with the wind and is able to survive.
The accepted interpretation of this fable is about pride and humility. Pride is unyielding and ultimately harms a person, but humility allows for flexibility which enables durability. This principle was similarly expressed by Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar in the Talmud, when he said, “Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar.” This advice remains eternally relevant and instructive today.
This week we read two Torah portions. The first selection, Nitzavim, means “standing,” as in “All of you are standing today . . .” The second portion is called Vayelech, which means “and he went,” as in “Then Moses went . . .” (Deuteronomy 31:1). On the surface, these two titles seem to express opposite actions. Nitzavim isn’t simply standing up; it means standing firmly in one spot. Vayelech is about moving around, anything other than staying in the same place. However, these two opposites are really two sides of the same coin, and taken together, teach us how to live a well-balanced life.
Nitzavim teaches us that it is important to be rooted in who we are. We need to be proud of what we stand for and strong in our beliefs. However, there is a danger in being overly prideful and too strong-willed. If someone is never willing to move from their spot, they can end up defeated in life. Pride can destroy relationships and be self-destructive. We need to be strong in life, but never too rigid.
Along comes Vayelech to teach us that there are times in life when we need to move from our spot. We need to be bending and flexible, yielding and humble. The Jewish sages notice that while the text tells us that Moses “went,” it does not tell us where he went. They explain that instead of making the whole nation assemble at his request, Moses personally went to each and every tribe in order to say good-bye. His going to them, instead of making them come to him as their leader, was a sign of his deep humility.
As we read these two portions this week, let us pray that we know when to be strong and when to bend, when to be assertive and when to compromise. As Moses illustrated, the mark of a great person is not in his power, but in his ability to put his power aside for the sake of his fellow man.