by R. Gidon Rothstein
The beginning of Nitzavim speaks of the Jewish people entering a covenant with Gd, described by the verse (29;12) as le-ma’an hakim otecha ha-yom lo le-am, in order to establish you (the Jewish people) for Him (Gd) a nation. Ever alert to phrases treating Gd too much like a person, Onkelos writes kodamohi, before Him, because of course Gd does not possess anything, including a nation.
On the one hand, it can feel repetitive, this constant stress on Gd’s non-physicality, on how different Gd is from anything we know. On the other, almost two thousand years after he wrote, people still think, act, and write as if they can fully understand Gd, which they would not were they to have absorbed Onkelos’ message.
As to the content of the covenant, Ramban to 29;11 thinks it was a re-enactment of Sinai, the people gathered in front of the Aron, the Ark containing the Tablets Gd gave Moshe, as well as the Torah Gd had dictated to Moshe. Ramban thinks there likely was a sacrificial service, too, similar to the one described in Shemot 24;5-8.
The verses tell us this covenant came with a curse for failure to adhere to the Torah, and an oath by the people to do so. Ramban thinks those two elements, the curse and oath, set this covenant apart from the earlier one, was expected/hope to give it more power.
The Jews saw the Egyptians engage their idolatry enthusiastically, had done so themselves at the sin of the Golden Calf, and have now seen the Ammonites and Moabites and their forms of worship. All of it was attractive and tempting, Ramban thinks, and the hope was this oath and curse-warning might keep the people away from it, more than the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.
So many adjectives for his view that hearing Gd give the Torah directly was not enough for the Jews to resist the versions of religion around them: stunning, saddening, stupefying, and we can only hope, educational, reminding us of how easy it is to be lured into ways of seeing the world that are exactly counter to the truths of our Creator.
Rashi has two other explanations for the role of the covenant. Hensuggests it was a warning to the Jewish people not to abuse the relationship. The permanency of the pact might lead them to think would never disengage from them at all. A first reason for the reminders here, Rashi to 29;12 says, was to remind them Gd has ways to exact punishment even while staying in the relationship.
His Aggadic reading flips the issue. Coming out of Ki Tavo, where the Torah laid out 98 forms of punishment for failure to serve Gd happily and properly, the Jews despaired of surviving such a rigorous religion. The berit was comfort, a reminder they had experienced the cycle of rupture and repair in the desert, were all there, ready to enter the Land, and could have confidence it would all work out.
Who Joined the Covenant
The first verse of the Parsha, 29;9, lists who was standing there to renew their vows, as it were. For the phrase rosheichem shivteichem, which some read as “the heads of your tribes,” Ramban instead takes it as a general term introducing the list to come, your elders, enforcers, and all Jews.
He attributes the Torah’s use of the word zekenim, elders, for leaders as a function of the wisdom of leadership usually coming with age. Children were included either to represent future generations or give their parents an opportunity for reward.
[He doesn’t clarify much. The representation idea reminds us Judaism assumes we are all obligated by Sinai. While some traditions claim we were all there in some sense, Ramban here seems to think the children represented us. Just like they were not of an age to commit themselves, the Jews of history were included in and bound by the covenant without any need for their adult acquiescence.
I dislike the simplest reading of the idea of the parents being rewarded for bringing their children, who will get nothing out of it. Rather, I think it suggests a value in involving children in Jewish activities before we have any reason to think they will understand or absorb them. Having the children at the covenant will affect them, so the parents are rewarded for bringing them.]
The Torah says the covenant will involve everyone, including your wood-choppers and water-drawers. Ramban cites Yevamot 79a, which says Moshe had assigned those jobs to Canaanites who had joined the Jewish people in Moshe’s time. The idea Moshe accepted some Canaanites shows there was no absolute requirement to wipe them out. Rambam and Ra’avad elsewhere disagree on what they had to do to be allowed into the people; it certainly seems like they had to agree to take on a permanent underclass status, performing menial jobs as the price of entry to the Jewish people. Both topics worthy of consideration at some other time.
The Trouble Our Thoughts Cause Us
The Torah fears some in the Jewish people were already immune to the warnings of covenant. It refers to such a person as a shoresh poreh rosh ve-la’anah, 29;17, a stock (or root) sprouting poison weed and wormwood. Onkelos unpacks the metaphor, writes it means a person meharher hata’in o zadon, thinking of unwitting or deliberate sins.
Because I am always alert to the trivial, I notice he assumed wormwood was worse than poison weed. Beyond that, he has located the roots of sin in our thoughts. Those thoughts are enough to predict this person will sin, even unwittingly.
The Torah gives some of what the thought is, the person saying ki bi-sherirut libi elech, 29;18, usually translated as the stubbornness of one’s heart, or the desires of one’s stubborn heart. Onkelos instead has be-harhor libi, the thoughts of my heart, without characterizing the nature of the thoughts. I think he is suggesting the insistence on following one’s own thoughts itself will lead to sin, witting and not.
Onkelos gives another indication of his view of the danger of undisciplined human thought when the Torah predicts Gd will one day mal…et levavekcha, circumcise your hearts. Onkelos turns that metaphor into ye’edei tifshut libach, Gd will remove the foolishness of your hearts, a translation I think assumes we most of us have a foolishness we need help removing.
The Ball We Start Rolling
One thought the Torah singles out is (in Ramban’s reading) the sinner’s certainty shalom yihyeh li, it will be peace with me” as I follow my heart. The sinner convinces him/herself not to change partially by deciding nothing bad will happen. It reminds me how early steps of sin may be imperceptible to anyone else, and have a far reach.
Because Ramban thinks sherirut—the word Onkelos took as “thoughts”—reminds us of desire’s ability to take hold of a person. It explains the Torah’s saying this attitude will lead the ravah, the watered parts of a land, to be punished/destroyed with the tzemei’ah, the thirsty parts. Sinners start out with a thirst in some areas of life, are fully satisfied in others, would not have been tempted to sin there. Their yielding to temptation where it does entice, though, lets temptation take hold, and they will end up sinning in those other areas as well.
Ramban’s example—astounding for how well it fits our world today, despite having been written in the thirteenth century—is that someone who yields to his sexual side in the area of the temptation of beautiful women, will find himself with expanded sexual desire generally, extending to men, animals, all the prohibited relationships.
Sherirut libi, the ways of my heart, become entrenched and feed on themselves.
The Comfort of Gd’s Presence
All is not lost, however, because 30;3 reminds us Gd will eventually return us to Israel. Ramban notes the verse refers to ve-shav, a form of the verb that can apply to Gd Himself, as it were, to tell us (according to one tradition) Gd goes into exile with us. Further, Ramban suggests, the verb uses this form to imply Gd will return each of us individually, as Yeshayahu 27;12 says.
The awareness of our vulnerability to sin can daunt or depress, especially with Rosh HaShanah right around the corner. A first source of comfort is knowing we always have Gd with us, sharing our troubles, leading us out of them, as best for each of us.
Repentance Will Eventually Persist
We can find further comfort in the promise, 30;2, we will one day turn back to Gd, having borne all the punishments predicted in these sections of the Torah. Some help in achieving that will come from the circumcision of the heart Gd promises, 30;6, as we saw earlier. Ramban thinks this is, first, a promise that those who try to come closer to Gd will find their way eased, an idea Shabbat 104a had expressed as ha-be li-taher mesaye’in oto, one who comes to be purified, they (Heaven) help him.
The help comes in the form of a circumcision, a removing from the heart of an additional piece that did not provide any value, parallel to the removal of the physical foreskin of circumcision. It will return people to the state of humanity before they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where people will always want to do that which is worthy of being done.
Nor is this as far-fetched or unattainable a goal as it might seem. To Ramban, when 30;14 says these matters are karov eilecha, close to you, be-ficha u-vilvavecha, in your mouths and hearts, it means it is more natural to us than we realize. Back in Eden, we wanted only to do what was right and good; we got caught up in sherirut libeinu, it took hold, and we went very far, leading to exile and all that which the Jewish people have suffered.
The solution lies in returning to this covenant, letting our better insides come out and express themselves, becoming again the nation fully connected to Gd, allowing Gd out of exile (as it were), allowing the world to get fully back on track to the good times Gd wanted to always be there.