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Parashat Nitzavim

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At the end of the terrible week we have just experienced, we will deal with the parasha of the Brit (covenant) –

“I make this covenant…with he who is standing here with us before Hashem… as well as with he who is not here with us today.” (Devarim 29:13-14)

Our desire to understand the making of a covenant and the covenant itself also exists now, during the difficult hours and days that we are experiencing,

We will begin to examine the verses of the covenant at the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, and we will pose questions now, that will be solved during the course of the shiur.

The Torah states:

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your God, your leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your policeman – every man of Israel.” (Devarim 29:9)

The expression “you are standing” – makes us wonder as to the context of this speech, why are they ‘standing’ there?

Rashi (Devarim 29:12) brings a Midrash that states that the expression “you are standing” relates to the end of the previous parasha. After Yisrael heard the curses of parashat Ki Tavo – they were filled with fear, and then Moshe began to calm the nation, “you are standing here today” - “you have angered Hashem a great deal, yet He has not annihilated you – (for) behold you are standing here before Him.”

However, this is not the literal meaning (p’shat) of the verse, but rather a homiletic exposition (d’rash). This is true as the two sections – the curses and our parsha – do not immediately follow each other, but rather there is a break between them. There are additional reasons that the commentaries on this Rashi explain that this is not the p’shat. What then is the meaning of “you are standing?”

The Torah continues:

“To pass you into the covenant of Hashem your God, and into his curse, that Hashem your God is making with you today.” (Devarim 29:11)

In this verse we are told the aim of “you are standing.” The aim is “to pass you into the covenant.” Here we must ask what the term ‘passing into a covenant’ means. Why is the verb ‘pass’ used with respect to the word “brit” – “covenant?”

We must note that the verse uses the term ‘cut a covenant’ in the Hebrew. The literal translation of the verse being: “the covenant… that Hashem your God cuts with you today.” (This terminology reminds us of the blessing recited at the conclusion of a circumcision – “Blessed are you Hashem Who ‘cuts’ (makes) the covenant.”

We will deal with these issues shortly.

And what is the ultimate purpose of making the brit?

“In order that He will establish you as a nation to Him today, and He will be a God for you, as He has spoken to you, and as He swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.” (Devarim 29:12)

It is interesting to note the emphasis placed on “as a nation to Him today,” why is “today” mentioned both here, and previously “you are standing here today?” It would seem that the covenant made with the forefathers was still one-sided, an oath having being made by God. Now the covenant was being made in full effect as the Jews were to enter the Land of Israel.

The Torah continues:

“And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but with he who is here with us today standing before Hashem our God as well as with he who is not standing with us today.” (Devarim 29:13-14)

The obvious question is as follows: if the brit is comparable to a contract, how then is it possible to make the covenant with “he who is not standing with us today?” How will such a contract be binding upon him?

Continuing:

“Lest there be among you a man or woman or family or tribe whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God, to go and worship the gods of those nations; lest there be among you a root whose fruit is bitter and worm-wood.” (Devarim 29:17)

Here the Torah turns to the private individual, “a man or woman,” as well as to the more communal entity, still limited though – “family or tribe,” whose heart turns away from Hashem.

The verse emphasizes:

“And it will be when he hears the words of this curse, and in his heart he will consider himself blessed saying – ‘I will be in peace.’” (Devarim 29:18)

Hearing the covenant will in fact cause this man or these individuals to turn from Hashem!

And so we find the divine reaction shortly afterwards,

“Hashem will not desire to forgive him, for then Hashem’s anger and vengeance will burn in that person…” (Devarim 29:19)

We have therefore the parasha of the covenant together with the various questions that we raised, and now we will explore the meaning of the covenant – this aiding us to understand the entire parasha.

What is a ‘brit,’ and what is ‘the cutting of a brit?’

Rashi in expounding the verse “to pass you into the covenant of Hashem your God” explains that “to pass you” means “to pass in the covenant, and it may not be explained ‘to cause you to pass in.’” In other words, this is not a passive process, but rather an active one. Rashi explains further,

“in this manner those who make a covenant behave – (they place) half here and half here, and they pass between them, as the verse states ‘the calf they had cut in two, and they passed between its halves’ (Jeremiah 34)” (Rashi Devarim 29:11)

Rashi tells us that when making a covenant they would take something, cut it in half, and then pass between the halves – this is the ceremony of “k’ritat brit” – “‘cutting’ a covenant.”

Rashi continues:

“In order to establish you today as a nation for Him” – “He is willing to go to so much trouble in order to establish (“l’kayem”) you as a nation before Him.”

“L’Kayem” means to bring something into reality. Here we have a beautiful description of God’s efforts – as if God exerts efforts in order to eternalize the existence of Israel as a nation.

Rashi continues, raising a tremendous notion,

“And He will be a God for you” – “Since He spoke to you and swore to your forefathers that He would never change their seed for another nation, therefore He binds you with these oaths, in order that you not enrage Him, since He can never separate Himself from you.” (Devarim 29:12)

And Rashi then emphasizes,

“Until now I have explained the parasha literally.”

From Rashi we are able to understand the elucidation of the entire parasha.

“You are standing” – prior to making the covenant. And a ‘brit’ is not ‘signed’ nor is it a ceremonious occasion, but rather a brit is ‘cut’a brit is not a contract. A brit involves blood, and lots of it. A brit is more than just two sides coming together in friendship, it is two who cut something from themselves, and then fill the deficiency through the other - by joining and becoming one body. The Brit Milah – Covenant of Circumcision – is the first mitzva of the newborn boy, where we detract from the child by severing the foreskin – and thereby we connect him to Hashem.

This therefore is a “Brit” – the mutual cutting in order to become one fused body.

And here we must ask the following question: the severance that we make in ourselves is clear, what then is the ‘severance’ so to speak that Hashem make’s in Himself, detracting in some way from Himself, in order to become one with us?

Here Hashem tells us that the Brit that he ‘severs’ from Himself is that He will always be with us, and will never change us for another nation. This Brit reminds us of the Covenant of the Rainbow (after the flood in the era of Noah) – there too Hashem ‘severed’ something from Himself, conceding His ability to entirely annihilate the world for its sins, and swearing that there will never be a second flood like the first. The theologian may query this – how may there exist a reality that the world will come to a state where a flood is necessary, yet God will not cause the flood? God answers this in saying that He ‘severs’ from Himself this all-encompassing Divine response – in order that we continue living together.

This is also the true of the Marital Covenant. The Marital Covenant isn’t simply two people who come together in order to share a common future, and therefore they come to agreement on certain issues – there is much more to it. They each ‘sever’ a part of themselves knowing that from this day on reality can never be whole without the other. More than this, at the moment they ‘sever’ a part from themselves, place is made for a third partner – He who created the world appears within the new couple.

Our Sages’ teaching that “husband and wife who are meritorious – the Divine Spirit is between them,” meaning that if one removes the name of Hashem from the husband and wife (removing the yud from “ish” –“man,” and the hey from “isha” – “wife”) one remains with “esh” – “fire,” is not a mere play on words. Should one remove the Divine element from the man and from the woman – their existence will remain in the plane of “earth from the ground” (Bereshit 2:7), and friction between earth and earth leads to sparks and combustion.

Regarding our parasha, Hashem comes after the rebuke of the previous parasha and tells Yisrael: we are making a covenant – that I will never be able to change you for another nation. The major religions of the world, primarily Christianity, were established on the notion that God had in fact chosen another nation in place of Yisrael. And so they created a “New Covenant” for themselves, distorting the true new brit mentioned in Jeremiah (that we will explain shortly.)

To the contrary, when Hashem said to Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf “move from me and I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation” (Devarim 9:14) it wasn’t His intention to literally annihilate them. Rather He meant to place Moshe Rabbenu to the test – the test that he in fact passed. To bring him to the realization that it is impossible for such an occurrence to take place – the covenant made between Israel and our Father in heaven binds us in an eternal unbreakable bond. Each of Am Yisrael had ‘severed’ of himself for the covenant – and in doing so had united with Hashem forever.

Now it is clear why the Brit includes blood. Blood indicates the action of severing and detracting from oneself – which forms the basis of the shared bond of those making the covenant.

In this context, the words of the Ramban are very interesting. He explains that it may very well be that the covenant made here in parashat Nitzavim is similar to the covenant made on Mount Sinai. Meaning to say that here also there were sacrifices, and here too the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled - part on the altar and part on the nation.

Again we see the motif of blood – indicating the Covenant of Blood that was made between Hashem and the Nation of Israel. This clarifies how this covenant can be binding on “he who is here today… and he who is not here.” This Brit is not a private covenant between two people – which then could only last the length of their lives, rather this is an eternal covenant between a nation and its God, that neither party can retract from! A brit more powerful than the forces of nature – as in nature there are factors that may vary, but this covenant will never change.

As Jeremiah states:

“Thus says Hashem, He Who gives the sun to light the day, and laws to the moon and the stars to light the night, calm to the sea and causes commotion with waves, the Lord of Hosts is His name. If these laws move from before Me says Hashem, so will the seed of Israel cease to be a nation before Me all the days.” (Jeremiah 31:34-35).

For our side of the covenant we need devotion, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly and unwillingly, until those days that Jeremiah prophesies:

“Behold days are coming says the Lord, and I will cut a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah: unlike the covenant I made with their forefathers in the days I held their hand to take them out of the Land of Egypt, (then) they broke my brit, and I remained their master, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:30-31).

The covenant of Egypt was implemented by Hashem, as the verse states “and I remained their master” – meaning to say ‘I was a husband, despite the fact that they, the nation of Israel were like an adulterous spouse.’

What is this “new covenant?”

“For this is the brit that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my Torah amongst them and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be a God for them, and they will be a nation for me. And man will not need to teach his fellow saying ‘know Hashem’ – for everyone will know Me from the lowliest to the most important, says the Lord, because I will forgive their iniquities, and I will never mention their sins again.” (Jeremiah 31:32-33)

The expression “and man will not need to teach his fellow” does not mean that there will be no shared study. Instead since there will be the knowledge and internal recognition of Hashem – a person’s studying will no longer be something that he acquires from an outside source, but rather it will stem from one’s inner self and essence.

This covenant and connection between Hashem and the people of Israel is eternal and can never be traded. This is the explanation of Rashi’s words when he stated that Hashem said to Yisrael that since He can never distance Himself from them so that they not enrage Him – “enraging Him” here means to exploit this covenant.

Those people described as “a root whose fruit is bitter and worm-wood” – are those who claim that as the eternal existence of Yisrael is assured, individuals or individual groups can do as they please! This then, is the exploitation of the brit, the “enraging” God that Rashi mentions. And they blind themselves from seeing that the covenant was made with the Nation of Israel as a whole, with the unit that is Am Yisrael – and not with individuals in Israel.

If we are dealing with the individual, and the overall nations, we must note that the rebuke in parashat Bechukotai is stated in the plural form, whereas the rebuke stated in the plains of Moav as the Jews were about to enter the Land of Israel were stated in the singular form. We can deduce that this distinction shows the different purposes of these two sections. In our parasha, immediately prior to entering the Land of Israel, the Torah is saying that each individual is a part of the community that is the nation of Israel – whether he desires or not. The nation, this grouping of people is not simply a collection of individuals that formed a community, for then any individual can choose to leave the group. The nation is rather made up of individuals who are inextricably bound to the group in an organic, existential union – should the individual think that he is external to this community, our cursed enemies will remind him that he is part of the nation.

In the Land of Israel especially we are bound one to the other.

In the Kabbalistic literature it is mentioned that the word “bereshit” is in fact “brit esh” (a covenant of fire) with the word ‘esh’ appearing in the centre of the word ‘brit.’ This is the aim – that the sounds, the flames and the fire should not be outside but should burn from within.

From all that we have said, a ‘brit’ is to sever in order to make a stronger eternal bond. At the conclusion of this difficult week we have learned that it is also the Land of Israel that we acquire through a brit of severance, a covenant of blood.

We will conclude with the words of the first Rebbe of Lubavitch who explains the concept of the ‘brit,’ his explanation incorporating all that we have said:

“The verse then states ‘to pass you through the covenant.’ This concept is, by way of example like two who love each other, who make a covenant that their love should never end. For if that which the love was dependant on was eternal – there would be no need for them to enter into a covenant with each other. Yet they are afraid that the basis of their love will be annulled and with it their love; or possibly some external obstacle will interfere. Through entering into the covenant their love will become eternal and will never collapse, and no obstacle will separate them – whether an internal or external obstacle. This is because the covenant strengthens and fortifies them, unifying and bonding them in their love in a wondrous bond that is beyond nature and intellect. For nature and intellect dictate that love be finite, or that some hatred should exist, however due to the covenant their love is eternal and any misdeeds will be concealed by this love and strong bond. For they have entered into a covenant and bond and it is as if they are one body – just as one will never stop loving one’s self, so too his love for his friend will never end. This is why it is termed ‘cutting a covenant’ – as the verse states (Jeremiah 34:18): “the calf which they cut in half and they passed between its halves,” in other words they both pass through one body to become one.”

 

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