Judaism: The Final Parsha of the Year
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
It is comparatively unusual for Parashat Nitzavim to be read alone as it is this year, and not as the double parashah Nitzavim-Vayeilech. The last time this happened was in 5768 (2008), and the next time will be in 5775 (2015).
Indeed, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Order of Prayers for the Entire Year, Listing of Haftarot) lists Parashat Nitzavim but not Parashat Vayeilech. Apparently he regarded this as one single parashah which would occasionally be split, rather than as two separate parashot which would usually be combined.
In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe concludes his third and final discourse to his beloved nation, the discourse which began in Parashat Ki Tavo, when “Moshe and the elders of Israel commanded the nation…” (Deuteronomy 27:1). Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.),
Parashat Nitzavim is invariably read on the final Shabbat of the year, the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashannah.
Appropriately for Moshe’s final words, and appropriately for the Torah-reading immediately preceding Rosh Hashannah, the themes of this parashah are the affirmation of the Covenant with G-d, the warnings against violating and forsaking the Covenant, and repentance.
Moshe prophesied that the latter generations will be astonished at the desolation of the Land of Israel, and will understand that it happened “because they forsook the Covenant of HaShem the G-d of their fathers…and they went and worshipped other gods, gods that they had not known… So HaShem’s anger flared up against that Land, to bring against it the entire curse which is written in this Book. So HaShem uprooted them from their soil in anger and in fury and in great wrath; and He cast them to another land as it is this very day. The hidden [sins] are for HaShem our G-d, and the revealed [sins] are for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 29:24-28).
The Talmud applies this to the ten lost tribes, those of the northern kingdom of Israel (which had split from the southern kingdom of Judah and remained independent of it for some two and a half centuries), and who were scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire: “The ten tribes will have no portion in the World to Come, as it says ‘HaShem uprooted them from their soil in anger and in fury and in great wrath’ – in this world; ‘and He cast them to another land’ – in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 110b).
Rashi (loc. cit.) explains: “The World to Come [in this instance] means the days of the Mashiach, because the Mashiach will not accept them as he will the other exiles, because they denigrated the Land of Israel, as the Talmud related earlier [Sanhedrin 94a];…and the spies were punished for the same sin”.
Apparently Rashi is referring back to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:3) which states explicitly that “the spies have no share in the World to Come”. Such is the punishment for speaking ill of the Land of Israel: this sin is so egregious that one who commits is destroyed in this world and has no place in the World to Come.
In the word “vayashlichem” (“and He cast them”) in our parashah, the letter lammed is written larger than the other letters in the Torah (in Masoretic nomenclature, lammed rabbati). This is a prophecy of exile, and maybe Jeremiah alluded to this when he lamented the exile: “May this not befall you, all who pass by this road! Behold and see if there is any pain like my pain which has befallen me…” (Lamentations 1:12). In this verse Jeremiah wrote the word “lo” (“not”) with a small lammed (in Masoretic nomenclature, lammed ze’ira), as though to balance out the prophecy of exile which Moshe had written in the Torah 850 years earlier.
Moshe continues in the next verse: “The hidden [sins] are for HaShem our G-d, and the revealed [sins] are for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah”. There is a peculiarity in this verse: over each letter of the words “lanu u-l’vaneinu” (“for us and for our children”), and over the letter ayin in the word “ad” (“forever”) is a dot – eleven dots in all.
The Talmud expounds: “Why the dots over the words ‘lanu u-l’vaneinu’, and over the letter ayin in the word ‘ad’? – To teach that [G-d] did not punish [the entire nation] for hidden sins until Israel had crossed the River Jordan; this is the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah.
Rabbi Nehemiah challenged his opinion: Did He ever punish [the entire nation] for hidden sins?! Does the Torah not say “forever”?! – Rather, just as He never punished [the entire nation] for hidden sins, so too He did not punish [the entire nation] for revealed sins until they had crossed the River Jordan” (Sanhedrin 43b).
Maybe this is a reference to the word “niglot” (“revealed”), which could also mean “exiled”. As long as the nation is in exile, the connexion between individual Jews is far weaker: only after crossing the River Jordan and entering the Land of Israel, only after becoming a united nation in its own Land, could the principle that “all Israel are guarantors for one another” (Sh’vuot 39a, Sifra Bechukotay 2:7, Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5 et al) apply.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) amplifies on the gemara (Sanhedrin 43b) cited above: “There were 70 [the gematria of ayin] days from the 1st of Shevat, when Moshe began to expound on the Torah, until the 10th of Nissan when they crossed the River Jordan… Another explanation: it alludes to the 70 years of exile in Babylon” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 29:28).
There are nine other words in the Torah which traditionally have dots over certain letters. These typically are interpreted to cast doubt or to indicate exclusion. For example when Esau embraced Jacob, the Torah says “vayishakeihu” (“and he kissed him”) (Genesis 33:4). Over each letter of the word “vayishakeihu” is a dot, casting serious doubt over the sincerity of Esau’s kiss.
Similarly when recording the census, “all the numberings of the Levites, which Moshe and Aaron counted …were twenty-two thousand” (Numbers 3:39). Over each letter in the word “ve-Aharon” (“and Aaron”) is a dot, “to show that he was not included in the count of the Levites” (Rashi ad. loc., based on Bechorot 4a and Bamidbar Rabbah 3:13).
The eleven dots over each letter of the words “lanu u-l’vaneinu” and over the letter ayin in the word “ad” are the last of such dots in the Torah. Outside of the Torah, in the other Books of the Tanach, such dots are extremely rare; yet they appear above and below the letters of the word “luley” (“had it not been”) in King David’s prayer, “Do not give me over into the soul of my persecutors, because false witnesses who breathe violence have arisen against me; had it not been that I believed that I would see the beneficence of HaShem in the land of life!” (Psalms 27:12-13).
This is, of course, the Psalm which we recite twice a day from the 1st of Ellul until the final Holiday in Tishrei, Sh’mini Atzeret (Ashkenazi custom is to recite it after the morning and evening services, Sefardi custom is to recite it after the morning and afternoon services).
The Talmud explains the significance of these dots: “Why the dots over the word ‘luley’? – David said to G-d: Sovereign of the Universe! I trust that You will pay a goodly reward to the righteous in the time to come, but I do not know whether or not I will have a share in it. [He feared that] some sin might exclude [him from sharing in the reward]” (Berachot 4a).
The Targum Yonatan renders the phrase “the land of life” (Psalms 27:13) into Aramaic as “the land of eternal life”. From other sources, we know that “the land of life” means the Land of Israel (Targum Yonatan to Jeremiah 11:19; Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 367; Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 888, Rashi to Isaiah 53:8; Radak to Ezekiel 26:20 and Psalms 142:6 et. al.).
The dots above the letters, both in Parashat Nitzavim which we read this Shabbat and in the 27th Psalm which we recite 101 times at this season, should arouse us to consider our deeds and to fear sin. “Happy is the man who is always fearful”, said King Solomon (Proverbs 28:14), meaning one who constantly fears sin. Even King David feared lest some sin of his may have excluded him from the reward that is stored up for the righteous in the future time. How much more so, then, must we fear sin and its punishment!
The sins of previous generations exiled them from the Land of eternal life, the Land of Israel. The sins of the generations who spurned the Land of Israel and slandered it were so heinous that there could be no repentance or forgiveness; they – the spies and the ten tribes – were consigned to outer darkness, cut off from the nation of Israel for all time.
There are still spies out there today – slandering the Land of Israel, slandering the Jewish nation, fighting with all their might against our return to the Land of eternal life. But today, in our most blessed of generations, every Jew has the ability to join the nation in its Land, to be part of the nation and of eternity.
Moshe finishes his discourse, and our parashah, with the moving exhortation: “Behold! I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the bad… Choose life, so that you will live, you and your descendants – to love HaShem your G-d…for He is your life and the length of your days, to dwell on the Land which HaShem swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
Dear Jew, in these final days of the year 5772 – choose life! Choose the Land of eternal life!