By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer
Parshas Nitzavim presents Moshe Rabbeinu’s powerful and dramatic exhortation to B’nei Yisroel to hold fast to the Covenant of Hashem, with promises of punishment for rejection of the Covenant and prognostications of subsequent Teshuva. Moshe repeatedly charges the nation to choose life by heeding the words of Hashem’s Covenant, to repent and to love Hashem, meriting good or punishment as the case may be. The tone is very intense and urgent.
What exactly is the Covenant of Hashem about which Moshe speaks in our parsha? Medrash Tanchuma (s. 3) identifies it asBris Arvos Moav, the Covenant at the Plains of Moav, which was elucidated in Parshas Ki Savo in the context of the Tochacha, the Grand Admonition, consisting of the Berachos and Kelalos, the Blessings and the Curses. Parshas Nitzavim serves to reinforce and provide encouragement and tangibility to the Bris Arvos Moav that was just articulated one parsha prior.
Moshe’s impassioned and animated monologue in Parshas Nitzavim gives rise to a few questions:
Firstly, Medrash Tanchuma (ibid.) notes that Bris Arvos Moav is the third Covenant of Hashem with B’nei Yisroel. The first two Covenants of Hashem were Bris Sinai and Bris Chorev, the Covenants of Sinai and Chorev. Unlike Bris Arvos Moav, Bris Sinai and Bris Chorev were not followed by an urgent, intense and dramatic exhortation. Only Bris Arvos Moav was followed by such an exhortation. Why is this?
Secondly, there is a well-known dispute between Rashi and the Ramban regarding a passage in Parshas Nitzavim: “For this mitzvah, which I command you today, is not beyond you, nor is it distant from you. It is not in heaven, such that one would say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven on our behalf and obtain it for us, so that we can hear it and perform it?’, nor is it across the ocean, such that one would you say, ‘Who will travel across the ocean on our behalf and obtain it for us, so that we can hear it and perform it?’. For this matter is very close to you, in your mouths and in your hearts to do it.” (Devarim 30:11-14) The Ramban interprets “this mitzvah” to refer to the mitzvah of Teshuva. This explanation fits in very well with the context, as the pesukim (verses) immediately prior speak about Teshuva. However, Rashi, based on the Gemara in Eruvin (55a), writes that “this mitzvah” refers to the Torah/Torah study.
What could be the rationale for Rashi’s interpretation? The immediately preceding pesukim speak about Teshuva, and the overall theme of the parsha is adherence to the Bris; for the text to suddenly switch gears and speak about Torah seems implausible. Why did Rashi understand the phrase “this mitzvah” as a reference to the Torah/Torah study?
Parshas Nitzavim signifies the commencement of Moshe’s departing address to the nation. What is most important about Moshe’s departure is that after his passing, B’nei Yisroel would be bereft of a direct and constant connection with Hashem. Unlike Moshe, who spoke with Hashem at all times, future Nevi’im (Prophets) only received communication from Hashem at certain moments, and the communication was often presented in terms of symbols and representations, rather than direct information. So too, the era of open miracles would fade away, and a more natural situation would ensue. Images of Moshe stretching forth his hand to invoke Plagues or the Splitting of the Sea, or standing at Sinai as Hashem’s voice thundered forth with supernatural effects, would be no longer. The passing of Moshe signified the close of an era of constant and conspicuous connection with Hashem and manifestation of His Presence.
This seismic transition provides the answers to our two questions:
The intensity and urgency of Parshas Nitzavim’s prologue to Bris Arvos Moav is reflective of the changes in the life of B’nei Yisroel which were about to commence. Perceiving Hashem would no longer be as easy, and direct communication from Him would wane. Glaring miracles that would instill adherence to Hashem’s Will would be phased out. Now was the time to dramatically present the importance of holding fast to Hashem and not veering off course, while His Presence and the lines of direct communication were yet boldly manifest for all to experience, through Moshe. Obtaining future commitment to Hashem’s Covenant now was urgent. Hence the riveting and robust reinforcement of Bris Arvos Moav, well beyond the reinforcement presented after Bris Sinai and Bris Chorev.
The only way to perpetually experience the Shechina is through Torah – by immersing oneself in it and reconnecting with the Sinai experience. As Rav Chiya bar Ami stated in the name of Ula, “Since the destruction of the Beis Ha-Mikdash, Hashem only has in His world the four amos (cubits) of Halacha”. (Berachos 8a) When open miracles and prophecy are not around, one can still connect with Hashem through Torah. This is precisely the rationale for “this mitzvah” being interpreted as Torah/Torah study, for despite an impeding reduction in the ability to palpably experience the Shechina, such an experience could in the future always be obtained through Torah. In other words, the intensity that was about to recede with the passing of Moshe and the commencement of a new era, which precipitated Moshe’s gripping exhortation in our parsha, could still be captured by engagement in Torah. This is why Torah is so central to Parshas Nitzavim.
Parshas Nitzavim is always read before Rosh Hashana, and in fact, its stirring words of mussar about Teshuva and choosing life and not death speak to us as we are about to start the Yomim Noro’im, in which the Books of Life and Death will be opened and we engage in Teshuva, in an effort to merit being written and sealed in the Book of Life. We feel that in Parshas Nitzavim, Moshe is speaking to us about the arrival of Rosh Hashana, delivering mussar to prepare us for the days ahead.
Carrying this idea forward, the conclusion of the upcoming holiday season is Simchas Torah. It is quite interesting and significant that the liturgy of the Hakafos of Simchas Torah, recited as we hold and dance with the Sifrei Torah, reflect a special closeness with Hashem and are largely themed around the Torah being a source of life and divine light. The final piyut or song recited at this point on Simchas Torah is “Agil V’esmach” (which is sung to a unique, spirited dance with major grandeur at German Jewish congregations, as the pinnacle of the celebration), whose refrain declares, “Torah is a Tree of Life, to all of them there is life, for with You is the source of life.” We end the Yomim Tovim of Tishrei, in which we drew as close to Hashem as is possible, by lovingly clutching and extolling the Torah, proclaiming that though the Torah, our connection with Hashem will not stop and will be carried forth into the new year, for through Torah do we perpetually experience the Presence of Hashem, Who is the fountainhead of life and radiates our souls with His light. We move from the Book of Life to the Source of Life, as we capture the special sensations of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and carry them forward through Torah, maintaining our bond with the Shechina even when the intense moments of the Yomim Noro’im terminate. We reenact Parshas Nitzavim, holding fast to Torah as our link to Hashem’s Presence, as our tangible experience of the Shechina via the Yomim Noro’im wanes, just like that experience was about to wane as Moshe delivered his parting words.
Kesiva v’chasima tova to all.