By Rav Reuven Tradburks
With Parshat Nitzavim we begin 4 very short parshiot that are the conclusion of the Torah. Although this parsha has but 40 verses, the emotional impact is hard to match.
The Talmud says that the curses of Parshat Ki Tavo should be read before Rosh Hashana. We don’t do that; we read Ki Tavo 2 weeks before Rosh Hashana and Nitzavim the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. It would seem that the harshness of the calamities that would befall us as outlined in Ki Tavo, while true, are difficult. What mood do we want to face Rosh Hashana with? The harshness and seriousness of the doom that will result from lack of loyalty to the Torah? Or the optimism and encouragement of the prediction of return of our parsha? The fear of Ki Tavo is tempered by the hope and assurances of Nitzavim.
1st aliya (Devarim 29:9-11) The Brit of Arvot Moav. All the people are gathered, men, women, children, water carriers and wood choppers to enter the covenant.
We have had covenants before in the Torah. A covenant was made with Avraham; another at Sinai. Striking in this covenant is 2 things: specific people and the word Hayom that appears 4 times in 6 verses.
A deal or covenant made with a nation could allow us to hide: it doesn’t apply to me personally, but to the nation. You all take care of it. Moshe avoids hiding: you are all included, men, woman, common folk. And this is not ancient, old news. It is today. As if Moshe is saying, “I am not making this covenant on my today – but for you, readers, this covenant is being made on your today.” All of you are in; present and future generations. No hiding.
2nd aliya (29:12-14) To enter the covenant; that G-d will be our G-d and we will be His people. As was said to the Avot. This covenant is with you here today and those not here.
The Talmud understands this covenant to be the one that binds all Jews with the notion that “all Jews are guarantors for each other – kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh”. It would seem that it is the extension here of the covenant to not only people present but to all future generations that generates the idea of mutual responsibility. We are all bound by this covenant spanning generations.
3rd aliya (29:15-28) Should there be amongst you those chasing idols, rationalizing that they are free to follow their hearts; the consequence of the special bond of this covenant is that your disloyalty, your chasing idol worship will be met with Divine wrath. The destruction of this Land because of your unfaithfulness will be so profound people will look at it and be shocked by its utter desolation. They will recognize that your disloyalty resulted in this desolation and in your being tossed out of this Land.
The description of the land of Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey is hard for us Westerners; we know what green lush landscape looks like and the present land of Israel does not look that way. The rocky, grassless, treeless topography of Israel is jarring to our eye – we are used to grass and trees. Especially as it is the land flowing with milk and honey. Something bad happened to it. The Ramban maintains that the land is not permanently sentenced to being barren and desolate; as long as it remained in non-Jewish hands, the topography remained rough. Once returned to Jewish hands, the green returns. Privileged are the eyes who have seen the green return.
4th aliya (30:1-6) When you are cast out of the land to the 4 corners of the earth, you will take to heart your fate – and return to G-d. He will return to you, returning to you to gather you from the far-flung places. Even if you are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and take you from there, to bring you back to this land.
This is the most beautiful paragraph in the entire Torah. It is so good it is split in the middle, to savor it. It is called Parshat HaTeshuva, the section of Return. The word “return” appears 7 times. We to Him. He to us. We take a step; He steps to us. But our first return is described as “we take it to heart”. Heart murmurings are the beginning of teshuva. And He is our cardiologist, He knows our murmurings, as faint as they may be. And Gives us the strength, the will to build on our deepest pining. He dances with us, but waits for us to take the first step. Then He gives us more strength and more. Just take that step.
5th aliya (30:7-10) And He will implant in you love of Him. And you will return to Him. And He will be thrilled with you because your return is with sincerity, a full heart.
Moshe chooses words in Sefer Devarim that are words of affection. There is lots of love, love of Hashem, lots of heart, all your heart. Words like life, good, cleave to Hashem, today. Moshe does not want to be only the teacher of halacha. He wants to be the teacher of our inner life as well. We need tutelage in not only what to do, but also in what and how to feel. Our feelings: let Him in, with love, with the deepest feelings of your heart, every day. The language is noticeably more emotive than the rest of the Torah. Moshe, as he is departing as leader, and departing from this world desperately wants to convey his deepest feelings and to reach our deepest emotions.
6th aliya (30:11-14) For this Mitzvah is not sublime, as if needing one to ascend the heavens or cross the ocean to retrieve it. Rather it is very close; on your lips and in your heart.
This short paragraph is the most beautiful in the Torah (ok, tied for the lead). It may be understood to be referring to the entire Torah. As if to say, “I know the Torah looks daunting; but it is not, it is the real you.” Or it could be referring to Teshuva. As if to say, “Change looks daunting; but it is not change, it is the real you.” We have this expression, the pintele yid. That deep down, everyone has a connection to G-d and to the Jewish people. That is exactly what this verse says; we don’t need to adjust, to adapt to a belief in G-d. We need to be sensitive to, to plumb our real selves, to dig deep and discover ourselves. It is close: on our lips and in our heart.
7th aliya (30:15-20) Life and good, death and evil lie before you. Life is a consequence of loyalty to the mitzvoth. Destruction awaits lack of loyalty. Heaven and earth stand witness: life and death, blessing and curse lie before you. Choose life.
These words are the last of Moshe’s long speech. He will move on to speak of transition of leadership. But these last words are like a tincture, a dilution. After all is said and done, the stakes of this grand venture of mitzvoth are nothing short of life and death. And with these words, Moshe prepares to take leave of the people. Nothing more to say. Choose life.