Nitsavim-Vayelech: Stand Proud!

Stand proud! You have free will!

Daniel Pinner

Judaism תפילה זכה, מוצאי יום הכיפורים במשכן אהוד
תפילה זכה, מוצאי יום הכיפורים במשכן אהוד

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardized 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, or more usually (as this year) the double Parashah Nitzavim-Vayeilech, invariably falls on the final Shabbat of the year, the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah.

Parashat Nitzavim begins with the words, “atem nitzavim hayom…”, usually translated as “you are standing today – all of you – before Hashem your G-d” (Deuteronomy 29:9). But this translation hardly does justice to the original Hebrew text of the Torah.

The Hebrew root יצב carries a few connotations. In the nif’al form נצב, in which it appears in our parashah, it connotes standing erect. In the pi’el form (yitzev) it means to strengthen, or to prepare someone or something for a specific task. In the hif’il form (hitziv) it means to raise, to erect, or to set up (see for example Genesis 35:14, Joshua 6:26, Psalms 78:13).

In the hitpa’el form it means approximately to appear before, to rise up in preparation, or to remain present. Unusually, this root has two hitpa’el forms. By far the most common is התיצב (hityatzev), which occurs 47 times in the Tanach. The other form is heitatzav which occurs only once (Exodus 2:4).

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), commenting on the opening words of Parashat Nitzavim, writes: “In the same way that at Mount Sinai it says ‘…and they stood erect (ויתיצבו) at the bottom of the Mountain’ (Exodus 19:17), here using the same expression [Moshe] says here ‘You are standing erect (נצבים) today’”.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) comments on the same verse: “The meaning of ‘you are standing erect today – all of you – before Hashem your G-d’ is that you are standing and ready before Hashem in order to stand in His Covenant, because they had been assembled to [Moshe] in order to accept the Torah with its clarification [i.e. the Oral Torah, the Mishnah]. Alternatively, that they were standing before the Ark. And the Covenant is the oath and the imprecation that he was about to mention – ‘for you to pass into the Covenant of Hashem your G-d and His imprecation’ (verse 11). And it is also possible that He forged another Covenant with them, like the first Covenant which He had forged with them at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:7-8)”.

Several Midrashim tell us that G-d forged three Covenants with Israel, though there are two different opinions as to when and where these three Covenants were forged. According to Yalkut Shimoni (Nitzavim 940), the first was when they left Egypt, the second at Horeb (Mount Sinai), and the third here in Parashat Nitzavim, on the threshold of the Land of Israel.

The Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Massechet Kaspa 5 and the Sifrei (Re’eh 104) see the three Covenants as being in Horeb (Mount Sinai), in the Plains of Moab (in this week’s parashah), and at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the mountains flanking Shechem (which Moshe commanded earlier in Deuteronomy 11:29 and 27:1-26, and which Joshua actualised in Joshua 8:30-35).

The Rambam (Laws of Blessings 2:3 and Laws of Circumcision 3:9) agrees that the three Covenants with which G-d gave Israel the Torah were at Mount Sinai, the Plains of Moab, and at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.

Rashi derives from the words “You are standing erect today” that “this teaches that Moshe assembled them before G-d on the day of his death to enter them into the Covenant”; Rashi sees the Covenant at Mount Gerizim and at the Plains of Moab as the same Covenant, and adds the Tent of Meeting as another Covenant: “The Torah was given to Israel in three places: at Sinai; at the Tent of Meeting; and at Mount Gerizim and the Plains of Moab. At each of these places a covenant was established” (commentary to Berachot 48b).

Whether we see this Covenant with which Parashat Nitzavim begins as being the second of the three Covenants (following the Mechilta, the Sifrei, and the Rambam) or the third of the three Covenants (following Yalkut Shimoni and Rashi), there is clearly an organic connexion between the Giving of the Torah and Parashat Nitzavim.

The generation which stood at Mount Sinai and proclaimed “everything that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), thereby accepting upon themselves everything that Hashem had already commanded them and everything that He would command them in the future, indisputably reached a pinnacle of faith and devotion that is beyond our grasp and understanding.

Yet that was the generation that had been raised as slaves, the generation for whom unthinking obedience to an overlord had been ingrained since birth. And that was the generation that had witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, and the Giving of the Torah with their own eyes.

Perhaps, given these experiences, they had no real choice other than to proclaim “na’aseh ve-nishma – we will do and we will hear”, unthinking, instinctive obedience to G-d Who had redeemed them from Egyptian slavery.

By contrast, the generation that stood at the Plains of Moab, poised on the brink of national independence in their homeland, was a generation of freedom, of emotional maturity, which could make its decisions without the lowly constraints of fear.

As the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) expressed it, “the difference between the Covenant at Mount Sinai and the Covenant in the Plains of Moab is that when they stood at Mount Sinai, the inspiration to accept the Torah did not come from the Children of Israel, but rather from G-d’s sending Moshe to tell them the good things…and from G-d’s appearing to them at Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning and the thick cloud to infuse His fear into them…

"This is why [before the Giving of the Torah] they said ‘everything that Hashem has spoken we will do’ (Exodus 19:8), in the manner of one who is motivated by fear, who says that he will do anything that he is ordered to do. But they did not say ‘we will hear’, because one who acts out of fear has no desire to understand the purpose of what he is doing. Only after they heard the Ten Commandments and the ordinances in Parashat Mishpatim, and after Moshe read the Book of the Covenant to the nation, did they say ‘we will do and we will hear’…

"But the Covenant in the Plains of Moab, which was after Moshe had told them all the words of the Torah…their souls passionately craved to cleave to Hashem, and they accepted the entire Torah with wondrous yearning” (commentary to Deuteronomy 27:9).

For a free and unbowed generation – an entire generation, standing erect – to accept the Torah was greater than for the generation of slaves to accept the Torah.

This, perhaps, was crucial to demonstrate that the nation as a whole genuinely accepted the Torah from free will, and not as an impulsive decision.

And then, having sealed this Covenant in the Plains of Moab, Moshe turns to the subject of repentance, which constitutes a major theme of this parashah: “It will be that when all these things – the blessing and the curse, which I have placed before you – will have come upon you, and you will take it to your heart among all the nations to which Hashem your G-d will have flung you – then you will return to Hashem your G-d and will hearken to His voice…then Hashem will return your captives and will have compassion upon you, and He will return and will gather you from all the peoples among which Hashem will have scattered you” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3).

The reward for repentance (teshuvah, literally “return”, return to G-d, return to the good path) is return to our homeland.

Moshe continues: “I bring heaven and earth to testify today: life and death I put before you, the blessing and the curse. So choose life, so that you will live – you and your descendants” (v. 19).

Moshe exhorts us: Repent! Choose life!

And the very concept of repentance perforce presupposes the principle of free will. Indeed the concept of reward and punishment – also a major theme of the final several parashot of the Torah, and the eleventh of the Thirteen Principles of Faith – similarly presupposes free will. After all, a robot or a computer or a mechanical machine which is pre-programmed to execute a certain task, an automaton without any free will, can be neither rewarded for doing good, nor punished for doing bad.

It is in the context of Moshe’s exhortation to “choose life!” that Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) comments: “Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility, that is, freedom of the will. ‘All is in the hands of G-d, except the fear of G-d’ (Berachot 33b, Megillah 25a, Niddah 16b et. al.) is an undisputed maxim of the Rabbis. And ‘to subject our will to the will of our Father in Heaven’ is the great purpose of man’s life on earth”.

And Rabbi Hertz then cites the Rambam: “Free will is granted to every man. If he desires to incline himself towards the good way, and be righteous, he has the power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way, and be a wicked man, he has also the power to do so… Since this power of doing good or evil is in our hands, and since all the wicked deeds which we have committed have been committed with our full consciousness, it befits us to turn in penitence and forsake our evil deeds; the power of doing so being still in our hands… Now this matter is a very important principle – indeed it is the pillar of the Torah and of the mitzvot, as it says ‘See – I have set before you today the life and the good, and the death and the bad’ (Deuteronomy 30:15)” (Laws of Repentance 5:1-3).

Moshe’s exhortations to repentance begin with his heartening and uplifting words, “you are standing erect today – all of you – before Hashem your G-d”. Only a nation and a generation that stands erect, that stands up for itself, has the power to make genuine free and independent decisions.

Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, wrote that “most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility”. The Torah commands us to take responsibility for our lives, for our actions, and thereby to be free, and to use our freedom to serve G-d.

And this is what gives us the power to repent.

And with this message, the Torah leads us into Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, the season of repentance.