Parashat Nitzavim – Erev Shabbat 27 September 2019
Week of 22-28 September 2019
Torah Portion:
Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63.9
Theme: Sealing the Covenant

The awesome solemnity of the opening verses of Parashat Nitzavim can hardly be overplayed. Moses has summoned all of Israel, and now he proclaims:
You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord, your God … to enter into the covenant which the Lord, your God, is concluding with you … that he may establish you … as his people and be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The significance of that moment is highlighted by “this day” recurring six times in Moses’ address (cf. 29:9, 11, 12, 14; 30:2, 8). Until this day God had not given them “a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear” (29:3) the covenant that God wants with them. In the story of this people, the covenant is the key to their identity, the foundation of their faith, and the affirmation of their unique vocation.

As the passage indicates, the proclamation of all the terms of the covenant (the Deuteronomic code) has been completed, and now that covenant is being formally sealed. Plaut (1534) points out two important theological observations about that proclamation: (1) it is addressed not just to “all of you” present this day (men, women, children, strangers within the camp …), but also to “those who are not here this day” – all future generations who will also be bound by this covenant; (2) it is understood that this “Book of the Torah” is openly accessible to all Israel; it is not beyond their reach “in the heavens … or beyond the sea” (30:12-13), and it is never to be reserved for just a few.

At the heart of this parashah is the very basic biblical theme; that is, the two ways: life and death, blessing and curse, prosperity and adversity (30:19, 15). “Loving the Lord, your God, heeding his commands, and holding fast to him, you shall have life – choose life” (cf. 30:20)! But, if your heart turns away, if you give no heed, and are lured into the service of other gods, you shall certainly perish (cf. 30:17-18); this infidelity will take a devastating toll on the land as well (29:20-27). The parashah gives careful attention to “shuv,” the process of return / turning back (30:1-10). Plaut notes that the word “teshuvah” does not yet occur in the biblical text in the meaning of repentance; it will appear in rabbinic sources after the destruction of the temple (cf. 1544). When they “turn back,” the Lord will gather them, even from the ends of the world, will bring them to the land, will make them prosperous, and will open their hearts to love the Lord and obey his commandments (cf. 30:4-6). In that spirit “you will long endure upon the soil that the Lord, your God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them” (30:20).

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] Recall a celebration of commitment in your own life or in that of your community: what words, symbols, or symbolic actions were essential to it? [2] What are specific ways in which you “choose life” each day?

Bibliography: Tanach, The Stone Edition, Mesorah Publications (New York, 1998); Brown, Fitzmeyer, Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall (New Jersey, 1990); Plaut, W.G., The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York, 1981).

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