TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Nitsavim


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Nitsavim
September 8, 2018 | 28 Elul 5778
Annual | Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 (Etz Hayim p. 1165-1179; Hertz p. 878-891)
Triennial | Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 (Etz Hayim p. 1169-1174; Hertz p. 880-883, 887-888)
Haftarah | Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Etz Hayim p. 1180-1184; Hertz p. 883-886)

D’var Torah: Those Not Present
Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz, Conservative Yeshiva Director of Engagement

Following last week’s parsha, which enumerated the blessings if Israel heeds God’s word and the curses if they do not, Parashat Nitzavim begins with a statement that, despite our taking it for granted, is actually quite shocking/troubling. Moshe, speaking for God, says: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Devarim 29:13-14) Given that Devarim 29:10 says, “You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God” this simply cannot be referring to Israelites who lagged behind, took a vacation, or called in sick. Thus many classical commentators (see Rashi on 29:14) explain that “those who are not here with us this day” refers to the future generations of Israelites.

But many commentators were also troubled by this answer. How can children be party to a covenant that they did not, themselves, agree to? How can parents sign a contract that obligates their children? Although our Torah is replete with notions of collective responsibility (see the Shema) and even inter-generational responsibility (Devarim 5:9-10 – “For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children…”), it also has strong notions of individual responsibility (Devarim 23:16 – “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.”) And over time, the notion of individual responsibility became an even more established tenet of “Jewish justice.”

One answer, articulated by Rav Ashi in Talmud Shabbat 146a, is that in addition to all those standing there, the souls of all future Israelites, both descendants and converts alike, were also present. The “opening” for this interpretation is that Devarim 14 refers to those present as “those standing here with us” and those not present as “those who are not with us.” Since “standing” is something that only bodies do, the verse hints that despite their bodies not being present, future Israelites were there, literally, in spirit.

The Malbim (Volhynia, 1809-1879) takes this idea further. He explains that there is no “connection” between the soul of a parent and the soul of a child – each individual soul is distinct and unique. Thus we must say that the souls of future Israelites were present, as one soul cannot be bound or obligated by another. But, he asks, if only their souls were present, how could the covenant’s blessings and curses apply to both their soul and their body? If the covenant is only with the souls of future Israelites, the physical punishments tied to the covenant should not apply. To this he answers that although there is no connection between the souls of children and their parents, there is a connection between their bodies. Our souls are distinct, but our bodies are produced from the material of our parents’ bodies. So not only were we there as disembodied souls, our bodies were also there in the bodies of our ancestors! We are indeed party to the covenant, body and soul.

Even without accepting the metaphysics, there is here a profound, timeless, and timely wrestling with the blurry lines between individual and group identity, privilege, and responsibility. Despite our awareness of ourselves as a singularity, we are the products of our parents’ DNA and the particular history, circumstances, and decisions of our family, tribe, and nation. That we were born at all is itself a consequence of both our ancestors’ choices and even forces beyond their control. So much is placed under our feet, and so much is placed on our shoulders, without our having a say in the matter. And yet, despite all of that, we are held responsible as individuals, experiencing the blessings and curses that flow from our own behavior. I find this both deeply true and deeply unsatisfying.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim brings a second justification. In Jewish law there is a principle that even though one cannot obligate someone, “one can accept a privilege for someone even if he is not present.” According to the Malbim, we should understand the curses as merely being the “corrective communications” that return us to the path of blessing – the choice of life. It is a privilege to be a party to a covenant with God, so our ancestors decision is binding upon us!

May we, and all our descendants, merit to experience it this way!

Parashat Nitsavim Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

On this last Shabbat of the Jewish year, in a period of reflection and preparation for the High Holidays, we find an entire passage about Teshuvah (returning to God) in our parashah.

1) The parashah opens with a ceremony to ratify the covenant (29:9-12). Moshe opens by listing the various social positions that are present (29:9-10), but then proceeds to speak in the singular (29:10-12), individual, form (If you are able to follow the Hebrew, this will be apparent.) Why did he switch from plural to singular?

2) Moshe stresses that the people have dwelt in Egypt and passed by other nations and seen all their god-figures of wood, stone, silver and gold (29:15-17). Then he warns against the temptation to worship them. Why do you think this was so tempting?

3) A specific warning is given to the individual who chooses to turn away from the God of Israel (29:17-20). After reading last week’s parashah, why might people have thought that it will not make a difference if they, individually, worship other gods?

4) After the dire warnings about the results of turning away from God, comes the section about Teshuvah (30:1-10). When might we do Teshuvah? What is the message of placing this sections after the punishments that will come upon us if we choose to leave God?

5) In 30:11-14, immediately following the Teshuvah section, we are told that this Mitzvah that we are commanded today is not too wondrous or too far away to be done. What do you think is meant by “this Mitzvah”? What concern of the people does this come to answer?

D’var Haftarah: I Surely Rejoice
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This week’s haftarah, the last of the Shiva d’Nehamta – the seven haftarot of consolation recited between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah, opens with an expression of joy: “I surely rejoice (sos asis) in the Lord, my whole being exults in My God.” (61:10) This exultation anticipates the happiness which will accompany the redemption from Babylonian exile. Its opening words “sos asis – I surely rejoice” utilizes the doubling of the verb root “shin vav shin”, a usage typical of biblical Hebrew to strengthen the expression. Literally, though, the root is expressed in two forms – the first meaning “rejoice” and the second “I will cause to rejoice.”

While these distinctions do not play a role in the pshat or plain meaning of this verse, they do play an interesting role in the following famous parable: “In Sidon, a man married a woman and lived with her for ten years without her bearing a child. They came before Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to get divorced. The man said to his wife: ‘Any possession in the house that you want, take it and return to your father’s house.’ Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said to them: ‘Just as you wed with food and drink, so, too, you should not separate from each other without food and drink. What did she do? She prepared a great feast and gave him too much to drink. He hinted to her servants to take him to her father’s house. At midnight, he woke from his sleep. He said to them: ‘Where am I?’ She said to him: ‘Didn’t you say, any possession that I have in the house, take it and bring it to your father’s house. Now, I have nothing more precious than you.’ When Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai heard all this, he prayed for them and they were remembered with child. One can derive from this story, just as a person can rejoice and bring joy to others, so, too, when the Holy One Blessed be He brings joy to Jerusalem, how much more so. And Israel, who have looked forward to God’s deliverance, all the more so, and so it says: ‘I rejoice and I will bring joy (sos asis) to others.’ (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 22:2, Mandelbaum edition, pp. 327-8)

This parable is a subtle critique of a law in the Mishnah which asserts that if a marriage is childless after ten years, the couple must divorce so that the husband can fulfill the commandment of “pru u’rvu – be fruitful and multiply” (see Mishnah Yevamot 6:6), since the story has the couple staying together (and everything working out in grand fairytale style). That said, all of the characters in this parable find ways both to rejoice and cause others to rejoice. This parable is meant to point out that the same holds true when God causes Jerusalem and Israel to rejoice.

A more universal message also emerges from this parable: Life is simply better when we joyfully receive what comes our way and share our joy with others. Our attitude can be a great help to to God in bringing about redemption.

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