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Parashat Nitzavim 5772 – 09/12/2012

Parashat Nitzavim – 5772

Hashem, your Gd, will circumcise your heart (30:6)

And this concept that I am about to expound, is apparent from Scripture, that from the end of [the six days of] creation the option is in man’s hand to do righteousness or evil, according to his will, and for the entire era of the Torah it is to be so, in order that people should earn credit throught their choice of the good, or punishment when they willfully opt for the bad.  But in the Messianic era, it will be mankind’s nature to choose the good, the heart will not crave that which is not appropriate and will not have desire for it at all.  And this is the “circumcision” that is mentioned here, for lust and craving are a foreskin for the heart, and the circumcision of the heart is that the heart shall not lust and shall not desire.  Man shall return at that time to the spiritual state that he was in before the sin of the first man, when he would do by nature that which is proper to do, and he did not have in his will the simultaneous pull of one thing and its opposite, as I have explained in the Torah portion of Bereishit.  …and [as it says in Jer 31:30-32) I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart…  This refers to the abolition of the evil inclination and the heart’s doing by its nature what is proper for it to do.  (Ramban ad loc.  Artscroll’s translation)

A good deal of our Parashah deals with the Messianic era.  We generally think of the Messianic era in communal, almost political terms; indeed the Talmud (Berachot 34b) states that the only difference between the Messianic era and our time will be that Israel is no longer subject to foreign powers.  Now since the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel we have had thrust into our awareness exactly what a big difference this actually is, and what kind of changes it might take to create this situation.  Nevertheless, these are political changes.


Now just as polities are made up of individual people, political changes have to be created by changing individuals, and Ramban uses our verse to focus our attention on the personal changes that will occur during the Messianic era.  These changes are extremely profound as well, and form the basis for the political changes we will see, hopefully soon.  [I might point out that Christian thought emphasizes the personal aspect virtually to the exclusion of the communal aspect.  This is presumably because if you choose to believe that Mashiach has already come, you have to account for the fact that the world is hardly redeemed on the political level.  Therefore all you have left is personal redemption.  I think the Jewish response to this would be twofold: (a) you can’t ignore the communal aspect and remain true to the Scriptural prophecies concerning Mashiach and (b) if personal redemption is widespread enough, communal redemption is the natural consequence – since we do not see communal redemption, we must conclude that there is not much by way of personal redemption either.]


The coming of the Messianic era will bring such a radical change in our level of awareness that it is almost inconceivable from our ordinary level of awareness.  Our very natures will change, our evaluation of who we are and how we fit into creation will be quite different, and on this basis our action will be very different as well.  The best we can do to understand is by way of analogies and metaphors.


Ramban first points out that the human situation since creation – that is, since Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – has been a pull between opposite values.  We are constantly presented with choices, to do good or evil, to heal or to hurt, to foster life or to harm life, to obey Gd’s Will or to defy it.  The reason we sense these as choices is that we are finite creatures.  While the basis of our souls is the infinite basis of all existence, those souls have been placed in a finite body, which has finite perception and finite powers of expression.  This finitude is of course opposite to our essential, infinite nature, and pulls us in the opposite direction.  Ramban explains that the purpose of this setup is that only by making proper choices can we earn merit; if we had no choices there could be no talk of moral responsibility, any more than with an animal or a robot.

We can look at this in another way: our finite nature means that we are, in some sense, separate from Gd, in the same sense that a wave, which is finite, is separate from the ocean, which is (analogous to the) infinite.  Now we understand that the waves on the ocean are nothing other than expressions of the internal dynamics of the ocean itself, rising and falling.  In the same way we can understand that our individuality is nothing other than a particular expression of the internal dynamics of universality, and the separation we experience is actually an illusion.  Nonetheless, while we are experiencing reality in this manner, we are caught up in the illusion, and while intellectual knowledge may be helpful in gaining some perspective, it does not take us out of the limitations of our perception.

This (sense of) separation from Gd is the source of all wrong choices we may in life.  Gd asks us to live our life following certain rules.  These rules all enhance the spiritual aspect of our existence, but they are often a challenge to the physical aspect, as they require us to defer or completely deny ourselves physical pleasure.  Yom Kippur is an obvious example.  For 25 hours we deny ourselves all physical pleasure, and focus all our attention on our souls.  We basically leave our body and its desires to eat and drink as totally behind as we possibly can, and become, as it were, pure souls.  For most of us, the body fights back with feelings of hunger and thirst, and intrudes into our thoughts with demands to be recognized.  Nonetheless, when Yom Kippur is over, we feel a spiritual exaltation that dwarfs the hunger and the thirst.  We realize that our souls are infinite, and the pleasure the soul can feel when it is allowed free rein is infinite.  Compared to that infinite bliss, what does the body have to offer?  Heartburn?

On Yom Kippur the prominence of the soul’s infinite nature makes it easy to choose correctly, for actually the choice to go with the infinite spiritual pleasure of the soul over the paltry finite pleasure of the body is a no-brainer.  Just like we have a choice to put our hand in a fire or not, but we never make the choice to put our hand in (leave aside running into a burning building to save your child – this is just an analogy), so on Yom Kippur the choice to put the body’s needs aside and attend to our soul’s yearnings is also not really a choice, it is so obviously and almost objectively the right thing to do.  Therefore our Sages say that our evil inclination (that is, our physical drives) have no sway on Yom Kippur.

I believe this is what Ramban is referring to when he says that in the days of Mashiach mankind’s nature will be to do what is good, and that the evil inclination will be abolished.  Surely we will still have bodies and therefore individual natures, likes and dislikes.  But most prominent in our awareness will be our souls – that is, the infinite component of our nature.  Once again our spirit will inhabit our bodies, but not be bound to them as they are now.  We will see ourselves as waves of an ocean of spirituality, completely connected to our Source in Gd and with all the power of creation at our disposal.  With this pure heart and perfectly clear mind and perception, sin might be a theoretical possibility, but it would be immediately perceived as so harmful to the communion of the individual with Gd that actually doing a sinful act would be as inconceivable as turning on the stove and climbing in.

Elul, the month of preparation for the Days of Awe, is coming to an end.  We will soon have the opportunity to taste the experience of living the Messianic age.  Let us use this time to rededicate ourselves to living as pure souls as best we can every day, so that we may all merit to enjoy the real Messianic age, speedily in our days.

A blissful New Year to all!

Pirke Avot, Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5, Mishnah 22

[Whoever possesses] a good [i.e. generous] eye, a humble spirit and a reserved nature [are] students of our forefather Abraham.

One who is connected to Gd all the time, who lives the life of the soul rather than a life dominated by the body and its physical adhesions, naturally never feels a lack of anything.  He is connected to the infinite – whatever he needs is right there for him.  He has no reason to hold back his generosity – on the contrary, the more generous he is with his physical possessions, the more light and free he feels.  There is no need for self-aggrandizement – when one is infinite and whole within himself, what need has he of the approval of others?  Why would he need to exalt himself above others when he is already exalted above all creation?  Such a person is already living the life of the Messianic age or the World to Come.  May we all live such a life!  This concludes this year’s readings in Pirke Avot.  May the coming year bring blessings to us and to all Israel, and through Israel to the entire world.