G-d of love, love of G-d

32 letters in the Torah have dots above them - and their numerical value appears in two verses. A revelation.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Scribe writes a Torah scroll
Scribe writes a Torah scroll

Dedicated to the memory of Eugene (Yisrael) Sockut, who ascended to the Academy on High on Wednesday 8th Ellul  (August 30). A dedicated fighter for Israel and for Torah who taught uncountable Jews how to stand up for themselves and for Am Yisrael, physically and spiritually. Yehi zichro baruch.

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.), we invariably read Parashat Nitzavim on the final Shabbat of the year. In about two-thirds of years, Parashat Nitzavim is combined with Parashat Vayeilech (as it is this year 5777) to form the double parashah Nitzavim-Vayeilech.

This is almost, but not quite, the end of the Torah. It is the end of the year. And it is also the end of the period of mourning and subsequent consolation which began two-and-a-half months ago on the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the Three Weeks.

The Haftarah (the reading from the Prophets which follows the Torah-reading on Shabbat morning) generally echoes the theme of the Parashah. But for the final ten weeks of the year (from the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks until the final Shabbat of the year),that paradigm changes.

The Hafatarot of the Three Weeks are called the תְּלָת דְּפֻרְעָנוּת, the Three of Punishment – the first chapters of Jeremiah and Isaiah, warning Israel of the disastrous consequences of their sins.

And the next seven Haftarot, from the Shabbat immediately after the 9th of Av (invariably Parashat Va-et’chanan) until the final Shabbat of the year, are called the שֶׁבַע דּנֶחָמָתָא [1], the Seven of Consolation – Isaiah’s magnificent, beautiful, inspiring prophecies of the wonderful times which await us in the future.

So this Shabbat, Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, concludes the seven weeks of consolation for the mourning of our plundered and destroyed Holy Temple, our conquered Land, our lost national freedom. 

Only in these last couple of generations has Isaiah’s majestic vision of Israel’s return to its national homeland and the restoration of its sovereign independence begun to flower into reality – the ultimate consolation for well-nigh 2,000 years of exile.

Twice the Torah warns us in stark, harsh, uncompromising language of the terrors which G-d will inflict upon us if we violate His Torah: the first time in Parashat Bechukkotay (Leviticus 26), the second time last week in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 28).

Both follow the same general sequence: increasingly unpleasant natural conditions in the Land of Israel (drought, crop failures, disease, economic collapse, and so on), followed by invasion and foreign occupation, and finally the worst of all – exile.

But there is a striking difference between these two. The Tochacha (the Castigation) in Parashat Bechukkotay concludes with words of comfort:

“Then they will confess their sin...and their uncircumcised heart will be humbled and then their sins will be atoned for. And I will remember My Covenant with Jacob, also My Covenant with Isaac, also my Covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the Land... And in spite of everything, while they are in their enemies’ land, I will not be repulsed by them nor will I reject them to exterminate them, to violate My Covenant with them, because I Hashem am their G-d” (Leviticus 26:40-44).

The Tochacha last week in Parashat Ki Tavo contains no such words of consolation. “Hashem will return you in ships to Egypt...and there you will offer yourselves for sale as slaves and as maidservants to your enemies, and there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:68) – and with this most horrible warning, the Torah leaves us.

Why does the Tochacha in Parashat Ki Tavo not conclude with words of consolation?

– The great Kabbalist and halakhic giant the Radba”z (Rabbi David ben Shalom ibn Avi Zimra, Spain, Morocco, Egypt and Israel, c. 1479-1573), provides two answers:

“The explanation which occurs to me is that there is no need for consolation in Parashat Ki Tavo, because almost every verse refers to Hashem which indicates the Divine Attribute of mercy [2], teaching that [even these curses come] from the Father of Mercy, as in ‘He crushes, yet His hands heal’ (Job 5:18). And there can be no greater consolation than this!

“Another explanation is that Parashat Nitzavim is connected with the preceding Parashah, Ki Tavo, because, after all, it contains the entire Covenant, which is the clear meaning of the words, ‘You are nitzavim, standing erect today...for you to pass over into the Covenant of Hashem your G-d and into His imprecation’ (Deuteronomy 29:9-11). And after all, this ends with consolations, as it says ‘It will be that when all these things will come upon you – the blessing and the curse which I gave before you...then you will return unto Hashem your G-d...’. Until the end of the Parashah is entirely consolation.

“And this is the true explanation” (Halakhic Responsa of the Radba”z, Section 2 #769).

So according to the Radba”z, the Tochacha in last week’s Parashah does indeed conclude with consolation. An entire chapter of consolation. Chapter 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy, with which Parashat Nitzavim concludes.

Immediately before this, Moshe proclaims to us what will happen at the end of days:

“That final generation – your sons who will arise after you, and the foreigner who will come from a distant country – will say, when they see the afflictions and the sicknesses which Hashem will have inflicted on it, sulphur and salt...: Why has Hashem done thus to this Land? Why the fury of this great anger? – And they will say: It is because they abandoned the Covenant of Hashem, G-d of their fathers” (Deuteronomy 29:21-24).

The isolation, the barrenness, the desolation of the Land of Israel over 1,700 years has testified all too eloquently to Moshe’s words.

The historical fact (contrary to the ubiquitous barrage of Arab propaganda) is that ever since the Romans conquered Israel, no nation has ever succeeded in settling our Land. No other culture, no other religion, no other nation ever established itself as sovereign in Israel; no one else built anything of lasting value; no one else developed a national consciousness in Israel.

For 17 centuries the Land lay barren, always a dreary and dismal outpost of someone else’s empire, sparsely populated by peasants barely able to rise above the barest subsistence farming.

Until the Jews, the true sons of Israel, returned. And then the Land flourished for the first time since it came under foreign occupation.

Moshe concludes this peroration with a somewhat cryptic sentence: “The hidden things are for Hashem our G-d, and the revealed ones are for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 29:38).

Countless commentaries and references understand this to mean: Our hidden sins are for G-d to deal with, to punish as He sees fit; maybe by inflicting seemingly natural misfortunes on sinners, maybe by punishing in the World to Come. Obviously, no human court can punish anyone for hidden sins.

By contrast, publicly-known sins are for us to deal with, to try and to punish the perpetrators. That is the function of the courts.

However, Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) cites Rabbi Benjamin Szold (Hungary and USA, 1829-1902), who noted that the cantillation marks allow for an intriguingly different interpretation:

הַנִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת לַֽה֖' אֱלֹקֵ֑ינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵ֨ׄיׄנׄוּ֙ׄ עַׄד־עוֹלָ֔ם לַֽעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת:

Since the גֵּרְשַׁ֞יִם is a separative note (approximately equivalent to a semi-colon in English), the punctuation allows for: “The hidden things are for Hashem our G-d, and the revealed ones; for us and for our children forever, it is to do all the words of this Torah”.

This is the basis of the consolation, the promised Return to the Land of Israel. G-d controls both hidden and revealed matters; our task is to keep the Torah. And if we do, G-d guarantees us His abundant rewards.

Let us conclude by noting a singularity in the text. Eleven letters in this verse are marked out by having dots above them: לׄנׄוׄ וׄלׄבׄנׄיׄנׄוׄ עׄד עולם. Thus these words appear in every hand-written Torah-Scroll, and in almost every printed Chumash. What is the significance of these eleven dots?

Five years ago [3], we cited the Talmudic explanation (Sanhedrin 43b) that dots over letters indicate exclusion or separation. Hence Rabbi Yehudah explained these dots to signify that  G-d did not punish the entire nation for hidden sins until Israel had crossed the River Jordan, and Rabbi Nehemiah explained them to signify that  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 into the Land of Israel.

I note here that 32 letters in the Torah have dots above them:

The second י  in וּבֵינֶיךָ (Genesis 16:5);
The א, י, and ו in אֵלָיו (Genesis 18:9);
The ו in וּבְקוּמָהּ (Genesis 19:33);
All six letters in וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ (Genesis 33:4);
Both letters of אֶת (Genesis 37:12);
All five letters of וְאַהֲרֹן (Numbers 3:39);
The ה in רְחֹקָה (Numbers 9:10);
The ר in אֲשֶׁר (Numbers 21:30);
The ו in וְעִשָּׂרוֹן (Numbers 29:15);
Finally, eleven letters in לׄנׄוׄ וׄלׄבׄנׄיׄנׄוׄ עׄד עולם.

Each of these ten instances is explained individually. And I note that collectively, the gematria (numerical value) of these 32 letters combined is 1,644. Two verses in the Torah have this gematria.

The first is:

וּשְׂעִיר עִזִּים אֶחָד חַטָּאת לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם

“One male goat as a sin-offering to atone for you” (Numbers 29:5) – the sacrifice for Rosh Hashanah.

The second is:

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ

“You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5) – the second sentence of the Shema.

The first of these verses denote G-d’s love for us. On Rosh Hashanah, as the new year begins, He provides us with the toold for atonement.

The second of these is our reciprocal love for Him.

We read these final dotted letters on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah, in the context of G-d’s consolation by returning us to our ancestral homeland in spite of persecution and exile.

The Three Weeks of mourning have long since finished. Our generation – after 70 generations of waiting – can at long last say: The mourning is truly over. The exile has finished. We have returned to our eternal homeland, exactly as all the prophets, beginning with Moshe, foresaw.

With this message we conclude the old year 5777, and prepare to enter the new year 5778. With this message, we prepare to approach Rosh Hashanah, to atone for our sins, and to receive G-d’s love and forgiveness.

שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה!

[1] Both these terms (תְּלָת דְּפֻרְעָנוּת and שֶׁבַע דּנֶחָמָתָא) are Aramaic.

[2] The Name Hashem indicates G-d in His attribute of mercy, in contrast to אֱלֹקִים, usually translated as “G-d”, which indicates Him in His attribute of justice.

[3] /Articles/Article.aspx/12179.