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Parashat Nitzavim 5779 — 09/28/2019

Parashat Nitzavim 5779 — 09/28/2019

Devarim 29:9-30:20

And not with you alone do I contract this covenant and oath, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord our Gd, and with whoever is not there with us today. (29:13)

At the beginning of our Parashah, Moshe Rabbeinu “inducts” the nation into a new covenant with Gd. He makes very clear that not only those present will be entering into this “contract” with Gd, but all generations of Jews yet unborn, as well (“whoever is not standing with use here today”). But how can my “signature” on a contract bind anyone else, let alone someone in our generation thousands of years later? Last year we considered Abarbanel’s approach to this question. This year we will look at some other approaches through R. Goldin’s eyes.

First, I’d like to point out that we have similar situations that arise even today in US civil law. A lease will typically have a clause binding one’s “heirs and assigns,” so that a tenant is protected should the landlord die or sell the building. The heirs or the buyers get the building with the condition that they have to honor the lease and the tenant cannot be evicted until the lease is up. So one might say that possession of the Land of Israel is contingent on the maintenance of the covenant by the “heirs and assigns” of the generation that entered into it. We are the heirs of those who stood with Moshe Rabbeinu on that day and accepted the covenant, and it is up to us to uphold it. In  parashat HaAzinu the consequences of non-compliance will be spelled out in chilling detail. We have experienced all these consequences.

Here is a sampling of some other approaches quoted by R. Goldin:

  • Abarbanel holds that the covenant is really not a freely entered into contract from both sides. Gd “acquired” us, so-to-speak, by freeing us from Egyptian bondage (body) and bringing us to the highest level of spiritual perfection that we could stand at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai (soul). The Land of Israel, too, is given to us by Gd on condition that we observe Gd’s Law, as spelled out to us in the Torah. The covenant is less of a contract and more an IOU, which does bind our heirs.
  • Malbim takes a different tack. Instead of treating the covenant as a set of obligations, or as a debt, Malbim looks at it as a benefit. Because performance of the covenant brings us both material and spiritual rewards, it is of benefit to be part of this covenant. The rule is, while we cannot commit a third party to a liability in his absence, we can commit him to receive a benefit in his absence, and this is the case here. I might add that the same rationale is used to explain how a Rabbinic Court can convert a child, even an infant, who is too young to make the decision for him/herself. In the latter case the child can renounce the conversion when he/she reaches Bar/Bat Mitzvah age.
  • Rav Yosef B Soloveitchik contrasts the covenant at Mt. Sinai with the covenant here. At Mt. Sinai, the covenant was with the collective body of Israel; it was a covenant between the people as a whole, and Gd. Every Jew “inherits” this covenant simply by being a member of the Jewish people, and “inherits” the sanctity that inheres in being part of a covenant with Gd. The covenant of our parashah, however, is a covenant between Gd and each individual Jew. Here, nothing is inherited – everything must be earned. Individual sanctity is gained by adherence to the mitzvot.

Let us try to synthesize all these approaches. The question turns on the issue of the nature of our relationship with Gd. Although the wording of the verses, using the language of a “covenant,” indicates a relationship between equals, it is hard to take that literally, as we are obviously not equal to Gd! But perhaps that is only on an individual level.

The Zohar tells us that “Yisrael v’Oraysa v’Kudsha B’rich Hu chad hu” / “Israel, Torah and the Holy One are one.” We have discussed before how Torah and Gd can be one. For Israel to enter this triumvirate we must be talking about something subtler than the physical Jewish people, as that had a beginning (either with Avraham Avinu, or with the Exodus or the Revelation at Mt. Sinai) and its constituents always change. Obviously there is some level where the essence of the Jewish people, which is eternal, resides. Being eternal, it can presumably be united with Gd – that is, somehow be a part of Gd’s essence.

What I think the two covenants are supposed to do is to align each individual Jew and the Jewish people as a whole, with Gd’s Will. The only reason this is even conceivable, is that the Jewish people, singularly and as a whole, reflect the ideal of the essence of the Jewish people that we discussed above. Perhaps we can even say that the covenant at Mt Sinai bound us as a people to reflect the ideal social structure and behavior that was in Gd’s Mind when he created the universe, and the covenant on the Plains of Moav (of our parashah) binds us as individuals to reflect the ideal of individual life and behavior. The two are really one of course – the society is made up of individuals and also reflects back on and influences individual behavior. Both must co-evolve to perfection. And the best place to start is with ourselves.

A Happy, Healthy, Prosperous and Enlightened New Year!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Nitzavim

In Parshah Nitzavim, “standing,” Moses tells us that we stand before Gd as a nation, not a mere collection of people. It is love of Gd and love of one’s neighbor that binds us together and it is this same love that binds together the different aspects of our personality: our thoughts, our feelings, our body, our routines, our career, family, friends….

So love and Love, Universal Love, are vital for us to live our life in unity, wholeness, not as a mere collection of fragments.

Moses tells our ancestors (and us) that Torah is not far from us, it is near, in our hearts to do. It is the Universal Love that allows us to live in Wholeness.

Moses also warns our ancestors (and us) of the desolation that we will incur if we turn from Torah, but comforts us that we will turn back and Gd will gather us together into the Promised Land.

This means that though we may sometime close our heart and turn away from Torah, yet at any time, we can open our heart and Torah will be seen there as It Always Is (Torah is the Word of Gd, the Liveliness of Gd, never separate, always there).

When we open our hearts, we are new people, descendants of the old people that we no longer are, new people, people in whom Torah and Gd are alive in our hearts, our words, our actions and in the response of Gd to us.

Moses tells us we are free to choose: the blessing of Torah, or the desolation of turning from it and he says “You shall choose life.” The readers of this Beth Shalom Newsletter are honoring Moses’ words and choosing life.

Live but enjoy everywhere, all around us, Gd/Torah singing to us, dancing to us, within us, within the sky, earth, pebbles, streams and leaves – everywhere.

Today and every day is an opportunity for the celebration of Newness – and Rosh HaShanah is especially so – New Year, New Us, New World.

A great time!

Baruch HaShem!