Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20)
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Efrat, Israel – Two Destructions and Two Redemptions: “You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even every person of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 29:9)
Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanĥuma, explaining the connection between the multitude of grim warnings (tokhaĥa) unloosed in the prior portion of Ki Tavo, and this week’s opening words: You are standing. Our sages teach: since the Israelites heard one hundred curses minus two, in addition to the forty-nine in the book of Leviticus (chapter 26), their faces turned green and they didn’t understand how they would be able to stand up to so many chastisements (curses). Moses thus began to comfort them: “You are standing here today. You have greatly angered the Almighty [after all, you constantly complained in the desert, you worshipped the Golden Calf, you refused to conquer Israel] but nevertheless you have not been destroyed and behold you are standing here today.” In effect, therefore, our opening has to be taken as a divine statement of consolation: You may well suffer, but you will never be destroyed!
Rabbi Yedidya Frankel, the late Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, asks three significant questions on this Midrash.
First of all, why did it take the second set of chastisements to cause the Israelites to “turn green,” when the first set of forty-nine could hardly be described as benign experiences? Here is an example from Leviticus: “I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish, and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it” (Lev. 26:16).
Secondly, the Jewish people seem to be recoiling at the massive number of curses – forty-nine from Leviticus plus another ninety-eight from Deuteronomy. But the fact is that last week’s portion goes out of its way to point out that the specific number of curses is hardly relevant because Israel will suffer every possible blow imaginable: “Also every sickness and every trauma, and every plague which is not written in this book of law, God will bring about against you until He destroys you” (Deut. 28:61).
And, in fact, the entire span of Jewish history bears out the horrible truth of this verse. For example, where in these warnings are the gas chambers of Auschwitz mentioned? And yet we were subjected to them! Hence why does the added number of curses cause them to turn green?
Finally, asks Rabbi Frankel, from a stylistic point of view, why does the Midrash not utilize parallel language? If, with reference to Deuteronomy, the sages speak of “one hundred minus two” curses, apparently being interested in a round number, why with reference to the curses in Leviticus do they not say “fifty minus one”? Why then do they speak of forty-nine?
Rabbi Frankel brilliantly answers all of his questions by suggesting another interpretation of “one hundred minus two.” It is not another way of representing the number ninety-eight. If we go back to the initial set of chastisements in Leviticus (Parashat Beĥukotai), we discover that, after the curses and the warnings are presented, the Torah then includes two comforting promises: “Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). Two verses later we read, “And even this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not abhor them, to destroy them utterly in order to nullify My covenant with them” (26:44). They were to be punished, but they would remain alive as a people and would be restored to the Land of Israel.
What prompted the Israelites to turn green with fright was that when they heard one hundred additional curses in Deuteronomy, they were “minus two” – devoid of any comforting ending, without the two guarantees they had received with the prior set of curses. And if the chastisements of the book of Leviticus refer to the destruction of the First Temple and its subsequent exile, and the chastisements of the book of Deuteronomy refer to the destruction of the Second Temple and its subsequent exile (see Nahmanides, Lev. 26:16), the Israelites feared that there might not be a return and redemption after the second destruction. They feared that they would then be destroyed as a nation totally and irrevocably. To this end, Moses comforts them: “Atem Nitzavim – You are standing here,” aren’t you, despite the Egyptian exile and enslavement, despite your miserable backsliding in the desert! You are the people of an eternal covenant – and God’s guarantee as to your eternality as a nation holds true for as long as world and history remain.
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The second Roman exile caused our nation to be scattered all over the world and endured for close to two thousand years. And although it is true that there is no immediate guarantee of restoration – indeed, the restoration was long in coming – the opening words in Nitzavim, barely one chapter later, promise our eternal survival, following our national repentance, and our ultimate Triumph:
“And you shall return to the lord your God and hearken to His voice according to everything I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul…”
Even if you will be scattered to the ends of the heaven, from there will the Lord your God gather you and from there will He take you up. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers have inherited, and you shall inherit it, He will cause you to do well, and you shall be more numerous than were your ancestors. (Deut. 30:2–5) And this is what we are experiencing in our generation!
By Shlomo Riskin (Ohr Torah Stone)
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Shabbat Shalom: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)
Efrat, Israel – “You are all standing before God your Lord – the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your bailiffs, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, even the hewer of your wood, and the drawer of your water. [The purpose is that] you should enter into a covenant with God, and into His oath, that He is making with you today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9–11)
We read a bit further on, in the book of Joshua (8:33–34), “And all of Israel and its elders, its heads of tribes and its judges…. Priests and Levites, half facing Mount Gerizim and half facing Mount Eyval… Joshua read all the words of the Torah, the blessing and the curse.” Why must Moses make a covenant with the nations “today,” in the plains of the Moab, so similar to the Covenant which will soon be made with Joshua on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eyval?
The Midrash Tanĥuma, which is cited by Rashi and which opened our last commentary, provides an important insight by teaching us that what necessitated the Third Covenant is the sin of the Golden Calf. It might have been thought that once the Israelites formed and worshipped a golden calf – only forty days after they had ratified the covenant at Sinai and on the very watch of Moses – their evil deed of treachery and faithlessness, idolatry and adultery, abrogated the covenant forever. The Almighty therefore enters into a third covenant during Moses’ lifetime as an affirmation of the truth that whereas a contract can be broken, a covenant is irrevocable; despite the backsliding of Israel, their covenant with their God who is always ready to accept their repentance remains eternally validated. “You have greatly angered the Almighty, but nevertheless you have not been destroyed, and behold you are standing here today.” (See “Two Destructions and Two Redemptions.”)
I would suggest another significance to this third covenant, and by so doing explain why and how the Israelites could have stooped to idolatry so soon after the glory of the revelation. In addition, we shall interpret the unique language of the Third Covenant itself.
What initially strikes us about the Third Covenant – and the manner in which it clearly differs from its predecessors – is its democratic element. Every single Israelite is summoned and included, from the chairman of the board to the lowly water carrier: “the heads of your tribes… your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, even the hewer of your wood, and the drawer of your water” (Deut. 29:9–10).
In terms of the ancient world, what could possibly be more allinclusive and democratic?
This town-hall meeting is in sharp contrast to the Sinai covenant, as recorded in Parashat Mishpatim: “All of you must bow down at a distance. Only Moses shall then approach God. The others may not come close, and the people may not go up with him” (Ex. 24:1–2). The extraordinary demonstration of God’s transcendent presence upon Mount Sinai necessitated warnings and boundaries. The Revelation was clearly aimed for the entire nation, but God spoke to Moses in a special and unique way; the rest of the nation was warned to keep its distance from the frenzied fire of faith, which has the capacity to consume as well as to construct. Hence it was Moses who received the bulk of the Revelation, and he served as the intermediary to convey the divine will to the nation (Deut. 5:4, 20–25).
On this basis, we can readily understand why and how the Israelites could succumb to idolatry so soon after the Revelation; since the Revelation revolved so centrally about Moses, when Moses failed to descend from the mountain at the expected time, the people felt bereft and orphaned. After all, the nation related to Moses more than to God – and in their frightened and desperate moment, due to the absence of Moses, they turned to the familiar Egyptian idols.
Enter the covenant in our portion of Nitzavim, the covenant that stresses the truth that God has a unique relationship with every single Israelite – Jew and stranger, man and woman, rich and poor, elders and children, wood-choppers and tribal chiefs – and not only with Moses or the elite class of scholars and pietists. The Third Covenant attempts to correct the previous misimpression that God was primarily concerned with the religious elite; God entered into a covenant with every single Jew!
Furthermore, unlike the Sinai Covenant, the present covenant takes into account not only the totality of all Jews, an across-the-board horizontal gathering, but it’s also a vertical covenant, extending both backwards and forwards, spanning even past and future generations: “Not with you alone do I make this covenant…. But with those who stand here this day before the Lord our God…as well as with those who are not here with us this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). The Third Covenant includes all of historic Israel, Knesset Yisrael entire, past, present, and future; it emphasizes the all-inclusive historical and eternal aspect of the relationship between God and Israel.
Years before the United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, an earlier plan was offered which would have given the aspiring state a very meager parcel of land. David Ben Gurion, the chairman of the Histadrut HaTzionit, was unsure as to whether or not to accept the offer. He greatly respected Yitzĥak Tabenkin, a leading Labor Zionist of that period, and so he uncharacteristically agreed to abide by Tabenkin’s decision. Tabenkin asked for another twenty-four hours, insisting that he must first seek counsel with two individuals. The next day, he advised Ben Gurion to reject the plan. “I accept your decision,” said the modern-day Lion of Judah, “but just tell me by whom you were advised?” “I had to ask two very important individuals,” said Tabenkin, “my grandfather and my grandson; I took counsel with my grandfather who died ten years ago, and with my grandson who is not yet born.” Yitzĥak Tabenkin fully understood the significance of the Covenant of Arvot Moab, the Third Covenant.