The scales of justice
The scales of justiceiStock

Parashat Nitzavim records the end of Moshe’s third farewell discourse to his beloved nation [1], the discourse which began last week in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 27:1) and concludes with the end of Parashat Nitzavim (30:20).

Parashat Nitzavim opens:

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d: your heads, your Tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your infants, your women, and your convert who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, for you to pass into the Covenant and imprecation of Hashem your G-d, which Hashem your G-d forges with you today” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

We pause here to analyse the operative word in this passage, “standing”, which is a very poor and inadequate translation of the Hebrew נִצָּבִים.

The root of the verb נִצָּבִים is יצב, of which נִצָּב is the nifal form. Another verb-form of this same root is יִצֵּב, the pi’el form, meaning “strengthen, set firmly, cause something to be steady and firm”; another is הִתְיַצֵּב, the hitpa’el form, meaning “to come and stand upright”.

And the same root provides the nouns נְצִיב, meaning both “pillar” (Genesis 19:26) and “national leader” (1 Samuel 13:3, 4, 1 Kings 4:18, 1 Chronicles 11:16), and מַצֵּבָה, “a large stone set as a marker”, often specifically a grave-stone (Genesis 28:18, 31:48, 35:20, Exodus 24:20, et al.); also the adjectives יַצִּיב, “firm, steady, permanent” and מֻצָּב, “set firmly in place” (Genesis 28:12, Judges 9:6, Isaiah 29:3)

Clearly, then, Moshe’s phrase אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם, with which our parashah opens, means far more than simply “you are standing today”: the verb נִצָּבִים implies a nation standing erect, steady and unmovable, actively and deliberately appearing in a specific place for a specific task, a nation set firmly and permanently in its place, as a leader, showing the whole of humanity the way to holiness.

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) notes the apparently superfluous wording:

“You are standing today, all of you…: your heads, your Tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your infants, your women, and your convert who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water”.

Since Moshe has already said “all of you”, why did he then have to specify “your heads, your Tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your infants, your women, and your converts who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water”?

After all, “all of you” means “all of you”, so all those other categories are already included!

Explains the Ohr ha-Chayim:

“Moshe’s intention with this Covenant is to infuse mutual responsibility for each other within them, so that each one would attempt to prevent his fellow-Jew from transgressing G-d’s word, and they would be held accountable for one another. The clear evidence for this is his conclusion [to this paragraph], ‘The hidden things are for Hashem our G-d, and the revealed are for us’ (Deuteronomy 29:28)”.

We pause briefly to explain what the Ohr ha-Chayim means:

G-d has commanded us to establish a system of justice, meaning that we are responsible for bringing sinners to trial and justice. However sins committed in secret are by definition beyond human justice, therefore they are for G-d to punish.

Hence the hidden things, sins committed in secret, are for Hashem our G-d to deal with, and the revealed sins are for us to deal with.

Commensurate with this, G-d can hold the entire Jewish nation responsible for sins committed in public, “the revealed”, and which go unreprimanded and unpunished. The revealed sins are indeed our collective responsibility.

He does not hold us collectively accountable for sins committed in privacy, “the hidden”: those are His domain to deal with.

The Ohr ha-Chayim continues:

“Hence the Torah speaks here of the mutual responsibility; and this is not the Covenant which is mentioned near the end of Parashat Ki Tavo…”

The “Covenant which is mentioned near the end of Parashat Ki Tavo” is a reference to Deuteronomy 28:69: “These are the words of the Covenant which Hashem commanded Moshe to seal with the Children of Israel in the land of Moab”. This concludes the תּוֹכֵחָה, the castigation in which Moshe warns us of the horrific consequences of disobeying the Torah (Deuteronomy 28:1-68).

The Ohr ha-Chayim continues:

“…because that Covenant was with each individual; whereas this [Covenant] obligates each Jew for his fellow-Jew to the best of his ability. So from this we come to understand the implication of the words ‘you are נִצָּבִים, standing erect’, as in ‘the lad who was הַנִּצָּב, appointed over the reapers’ (Ruth 2:5) – the word נִצָּב denotes being appointed to a position of authority.

“And his saying ‘all of you’ means that this responsibility falls upon every single individual according to his ability. And this follows what our Sages said in the Talmud: ‘Anyone who is able to protest against [the sins of] his own household and doesn’t – is held responsible for [the sins of] his own household; against [the sins of] the people of his city – is held responsible for [the sins of] the people of his city; against [the sins of] the entire world and doesn’t – is held responsible for [the sins of] the entire world’ (Shabbat 54b).

“So this is why the Torah stipulates here ‘your heads, your Tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your infants, your women, and your converts who are in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water’ – each one is responsible for as much as he has the ability to do:

‘Your heads’ are the great Torah-leaders who have the power to protest again the sins of all Israel…

‘Your Tribes’ – each Tribe is responsible for [the members of] that Tribe;

‘Your elders and your officers’ – each elder is responsible for his family;

‘Every man of Israel’ – referring to the masses, each one is responsible for his household”.

The Ohr ha-Chayim clarifies the Torah’s principle that each Jew is responsible not only for himself, but also for other Jews who have been entrusted to him.

This calls to mind the Rambam’s adage:

“Every single person has both merits and sins; one whose merits are greater than his sins is a צַדִּיק (tzaddik, a righteous person), and one whose sins are greater than his merits is a רָשָׁע (rasha’, an evil person); if they are evenly balanced then he is intermediate.

“And similarly with a country: if the merits of all its denizens are greater than their sins then it is righteous, and if their sins are greater, then it is evil. And similarly with the entire world.


“However this balance is not according to the number of merits and sins but rather according to their magnitude: there can be one merit which outweighs several sins…and one sin which outweighs several merits… And we weigh solely according to the judgement of G-d, Who knows how to measure merits versus sins” (Laws of Repentance 3:1-2).

This follows the dictum of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince: “Be just as cautious with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, because you cannot know the reward for mitzvot” (Pirkei Avot 2:1, Nedarim 39b).

The Rambam continues:

“Even though blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashannah is commanded by the Torah [and therefore we do it whether we understand a reason for it not], it nevertheless contains an allusion, as though to say: Awaken, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, arouse yourselves from your slumbers! Examine your actions, repent, and remember your Creator!...

“Everyone must see himself throughout the year as though he is half-meritorious and half-righteous; and similarly the entire world as half-meritorious and half-righteous. Thus one single sin tips the balance for himself and for the entire world to guilt, bringing upon him destruction; and if he does just one single mitzvah he tips the balance for himself and for the entire world to merit, bringing salvation to him and to the entire world” (Laws of Repentance 3:4).

This casts an awesome responsibility upon every single one of us: every action, even the tiniest, if for bad, can condemn not only ourselves but the entire world to doom. But conversely, every action, even the tiniest, if for good, can bring salvation not only for ourselves but for the entire world.

If we – every single one of us – could truly keep this imagery of the Rambam’s before ourselves constantly, then think what heights we could achieve!

We have all done things which later we regretted, or even at the time knew were wrong: whether shouting at our children impatiently; or making sarcastic and hurtful remarks to friends or colleagues (maybe disguised as jokes); or not seeing and hearing the poor who desperately need our help (after all, I’m in a hurry, I don’t have time to pause and throw a coin…as if those few seconds really make a difference); or gabbling off prayers automatically instead of reflecting on their meaning; or a thousand other little ways in which we could so easily improve ourselves.

This is the message of the opening words of Parashat Nitzavim:

You [אַתֶּם, plural] are standing [נִצָּבִים, plural] today…for you [לְעָבְרְךָ, singular] to pass into the Covenant…which Hashem your G-d forges with you [עִמְּךָ, singular] today; for the sake of establishing you [אֹתְךָ, singular] as His nation…”.

Yes the entire nation as a whole are נִצָּבִים, standing in plural – but G-d passes each individual Jew personally into His Covenant; He establishes every single individual Jew as His nation.

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.), we have invariably read Parashat Nitzavim on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah (more often than not combined with Parashat Vayeilech, sometimes, as this year, alone).

This is the message that our Sages infuse within us – all of us collectively, and every single one of us individually.

We are all נִצָּבִים, standing erect, steady and unmovable, each of us in our own position of authority, whether only over ourselves or also over others.

With this powerful idea we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the time for repentance and forgiveness.

So I wish all my readers a happy and sweet New Year תשפ"ב (5782), and if I have offended anyone with my words, I apologise and ask forgiveness.


[1] Moshe delivered four farewell discourses to the Children of Israel: the first is recorded in Deuteronomy 1:6-4:10, the second in 5:1-26:19, the third in 27:1-30:20, and the fourth in 31:1-6.