Standing upright in the presence of HaShem (Parsha Nitzavim)

Atem nitsavim hayom kulechem lifney Adonay Eloheychem rasheychem shivteychem zikneychem veshotreychem kol ish Yisra’el. Tapechem nesheychem vegerecha asher bekerev machaneycha mechotev etseycha ad sho’ev meymecha. Le’overecha bivrit Adonay Eloheycha uve’alato asher Adonay Eloheycha koret imcha hayom.

Today you are all standing before God your Lord – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the proselytes in your camp – even your woodcutters and water drawers.

You are thus being brought into the covenant of God your Lord, and [accepting] the dread oath that He is making with you today. Nitzavim means “standing firm, standing at attention.”
It suggests an act of will, a physical statement of hineni-“here I am.” The people are attendant upon HaShem, upon His words; they are paying attention, standing rooted in His presence. This is an historic act foreshadowed by the hineni of Abraham and a prescriptive metaphor for our relationship with HaShem. As Jews, we stand before Him on the Days of Awe to make our ultimate choice. And as Jews, we reaffirm this choice by the many decisions we make during the coming year. It is not easy to stand at attention. This involves standing upright and tall and being very still, none of which come naturally to us. We want to slump and be comfortable, to fidget and move around. Think back to the last time you stood for a long time. Did you have a hard time of it? During the month of Elul, we practice standing still in the presence of HaShem.

Parshah summary:
Moses speaks of the unity of all of the people of Israel. He warns them of the exile and speaks of the destruction that will occur if Israel does not heed HaShem’s mitzvos but says that Israel will return ultimately. he discusses the Torah as being within the reach of human beings. Finally, the primacy of choice is once again reiterated: life and goodness, death and evil, blessing and curse. We are commanded to choose life.

Q: Who is standing at attention?
All of Israel. From the leaders to the water drawers. This stresses both our unity and our equality. Here we are acting as one, with one voice. but this is not a choice made for us by our leaders. Rather it is a choice made freely by every Jew, whether leader, convert, or slave. Just as the head of the body cannot say, “I am superior to the foot;” so too cannot one Jew say he is superior in the sight of HaShem. (Midrash)
The separate mention of the wood cutters and the water drawers led Rashi to deduce that they were Gibeonites (Joshua 9.27) and false converts. Moses realized this and assigned them to menial positions. R. Yannai used this mention to teach that slaves too were children of the covenant.
All of Israel-past, present, and future generations-as well as all converts were present that day. (Rav Ashi, Rav Abbahu, Tosefta)

Q: Why was Israel standing at attention?
To enter into a covenant. Lit. “To pass through a covenant.” (Rashi) This came from the practice of cutting a calf and passing between the cut halves to seal an agreement. (My rabbi used to say it literally mean to cut a covenant.)

Q: What is a covenant, and why make one?
A covenant is a formal and binding agreement made between two parties. Some examples of covenants are a bris, a wedding, etc. The reasons for making this covenant are these: Moses has guided us for more than 40 years. He has seen us fail and fail again. Now we stand at the entrance to Eretz Yisroel, where he can no longer be with us. So he “recreates” Sinai and brings us to attention before HaShem and recounts once again our awesome choice. Again we must choose. Again be bound to HaShem. And again HaShem chooses us.

The following is a fun exercise I found in Hillel (2008) regarding 30:1-10 from Nitzavim:
There are 7 words from root shin-vav-vet, which also forms the word teshuvah, in this passage. This is how it plays out as a tennis match:

30:1 “…the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take them (va-ha-shevota) to heart.” Score: God 1, Jews 0.
30:2 “And you return (ve-shavta) to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed His command”. God 2, Jews 0.
30:3 “Then the Lord your God will restore (ve-shav) your fortunes…” God 2, Jews 1.
30:3 “…He will bring you together (ve-shav) again” God 2, Jews 2.
30:8 “You will return (ta-shuv) and obey the voice of the Lord…” God 3, Jews 2.
30:9 “…For the Lord will again (ya-shuv) delight in your well-being.” God 3, Jews 3.
30:10 “…once you return (ta-shuv) to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.”
God: game, set and match.
But why should this be back and forth? Why couldn’t God simply win in a rout: We serve God repentance, God returns redemption, six-love?
To answer this, Leibowitz quotes Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, a 15th-century Spanish commentator. He observed that repentance cannot be a single act, where one goes from deep in sin to the “pinnacle of purity.” In his book, “Akedat Yitzhak,” he quotes the prophet Isaiah, who said: “Let the wicked forsake his path and the iniquitous man his thoughts and return to the Lord.” Arama asks: if this person has forsaken his path, why did Isaiah need to say “return to the Lord?” Isn’t forsaking the path in and of itself repentance? His answer: there are two stages of repentance. The first is a preliminary movement back to God, which is done with great difficulty and without much progress, but is enough to “leave the evil path behind.” The second stage, achieved after a greater effort, brings one closer to God using the increased momentum of being on the “right path.” Arama argues that in order for us to reach the second stage, our first step has to be immediately reciprocated – that the second stage may not come if God does not provide any encouragement or redemptive sign.
And sure enough, as we struggle through reading these instructions along with the threats, curses and rebukes concentrated in the last two Torah portions, wondering how to find that path, the Torah provides us with some encouragement:

30:11-14: “Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the Heavens…neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

That provides us with some direction, in that we might look to things we know – things we know so well, that they are in our mouths and in my hearts (memory, prayer, ideas, family) – and use them to find the way.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot, Neimot Vetovot – We should all merit many more good and pleasant years ahead.

Prepared by Simon Amiel, former director of the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps

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