Nitzavim I. A Covenant of All of You

“Today you all stand before Gd, your chiefs, your elders…all of Israel, your children, wives, the strangers in your midst, from the woodchopper to the water carrier, to enter into a covenant with God…”

With these words, the covenant between God and the people of Israel is established. But a covenant with whom?  With rabbis? Scholars? What does a “covenant” mean or establish? The answer to many of these questions are implicit in the verse itself, and the answers are not what we might expect, and perhaps we will understand why this passage was chosen to be the one always preceding Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year.

As usual, the verse itself is problematic in several ways. First of all, there is that unusual word, nitzavim, meaning “standing”. Furthermore, the segment lists all these types of societal positions, then sums them all up in the superfluous phrase “all of Israel”, a phrase doubly enigmatic because it uses a singular voice- kol ish yisrael- “every person, of the people of Israel”, after listing a range of professions.

Rashi presents three different readings of this passage. He begins with the “peshat”, the so-called literal reading of the text. He then offers two “midrashic” readings, the second of which explains the word nitzavim, “standing”, as derived from the word matzevah, monument, and explains that at this moment, Moshe transformed the people into a ‘monument’, in order to make them more ready to listen, or more obedient (Rashi points out that in later transfers of leadership this same  root of nitzav is used).

The Shem M’Shmuel riffs on this nitzav = matzeva similarity to derive a radical lesson. He explains that the mizbeach, the altar central to the service in the biblical Temple, was made up of many stones, whereas the matzevah, an earlier form of monument or altar, described as being used before the Temple was constructed, and forbidden after the Temple was constructed, was made up of one stone. Thus, for the covenant to be established, the people (all humanity, really), despite their individual differences, must come together like the single stone altar, as one people.

In other words, the purpose of the textual play between multiple societal roles and singular language is to emphasize the need for all of the people to come together as a united whole. Furthermore, he adds, the term Nitzav means ‘to step forward without fear’ (as used in Bamidbar 16:27 describing the insurrection of Korach), and thus, when the different elements of society are unified, there is nothing to fear. Unity of this sort really is strength.

The idea that all strata of society will be a part of the growth of the people as a whole is a common theme in the classical Hassidic writers. Rav Zadok Hacohen believes this interplay between higher and lower class positions in society, versus the single-person phrase “all of Israel” speaks of a time in which the entire nation will attain such a high spiritual plateau so that all will attain equal spiritual awareness, much as was the case at the splitting of the sea, where the midrash tells us that ‘the most lowly maidservant’ experienced God as acutely as did the greatest minds of the generation. A bond of peoplehood must lead to the spiritual elevation of every member of society.

It is interesting to see how the emphasis on collective vs the individual changes within the Hassidic writers over time. The relatively late Sefat Emet is a collectivist. He reads the “today” at the beginning of the verse means “today”, that is, now, at this very moment, we are all called to stand before God, and the way to best to stand before God is for the individual to make himself part of the klal, the collective, to surrender himself unto the people as a whole. This is the message of the extra word kulchem, all of you, as a people. This unity will stand as a matzevah, as a monument, a reminder for all future generations, as the verses state; thus, he states, the remedy for an individual who wishes absolution from sin, is to stand together with the people. And the reverse, so to speak, is also true. In order to become a part of the klal, it is adequate to be willing to shoulder the responsibilities imposed by the covenantal community.

As we move towards earlier Hassidic commentators, we find the opposite approach. The Meor V’Shemesh, a Hassidic thinker of the middle generations, may serve as an illustrative middle ground, containing both positions. On the one hand, the communal side, he argues that the verse speaks to us now, reminding us that “we, the people, are standing today”, that is, still exist today because there is a unity among the people as a whole despite the societal distinctions- no matter what position in society the individual occupies, ultimately we all share a deep love for the entire people.

On the other hand, emphasizing the role of the individual, the Meor V’Shemesh suggests another linguistic root for the term nitzavim, deriving it from the root of “nitzav”, which is used uniquely in Judges 3:20 to refer to the haft of the sword, the handle which supports the cutting blade. This etymology is meant to suggest a reading whereby Moshe is telling the people that no matter what position in society their life has placed them, they are each individually capable of serving as the handle, the vehicle for the revelation of God’s message to the world. In other words, rather than emphasizing the group nature of the covenant, there is an emphasis on the individual within the group as being a primary source of truth and spirituality.

As we move back to the earliest writings, we find a sublime set of readings whereby this dialectic of individual vs communal refers even to differing states within every individual .

To provide some contemporary context for this approach, we can turn to the postmodernist Kenneth Gergen, who argues that one of the effects of contemporary technology, especially information technology, upon the individual is a situation of “fractionated being”:

By dramatically expanding the range of information to which we are exposed, the range of persons with whom we have significant interchange, and the range of opinion available within multiple media sites, we become privy to and engaged within multiple realities. Or more simply, the comfort of parochial univocality is disturbed…to the extent that these standpoints are intelligible, they also enter the compendium of resources available for the individuals’s own deliberations. In a Bakhtinian vein, the individual approaches a state of radical polyvocality…in this move from the private interior to the social sphere, the presumption of a private self as a source of moral direction is subverted. If negotiating the complexities of multiplicity becomes normalized, so does the conception of mind as moral touchstone grow pale…

Or to put it more simply, here is Roland Barthes talking of himself:

Philosophically, it seems that you are a materialist (if the word doesn’t sound too old fashioned); ethically, you divide yourself, as for the body, you are a hedonist; as for violence, you would rather be something of a Buddhist! You want to have nothing to do with faith, yet you have a certain nostalgia for ritual, etc. You are a patchwork of reaction; is there anything primary in you?

This approach, cognizant of the complex make up of each individual, is found in several of the early Hassidic thinkers. For example, R. Nachman of Breslov reads our verse about nitzavim, ‘standing’, as regarding every individual at prayer- the standing referred to in verse 29:9 hints at standing for prayer (as in BT Berachot 6: ), and that the ten types of societal position refer to the ten fingers), which clap during ecstatic prayer, so that we “are” the ten types of people within the very substance of our body.

Similarly, the Or Penei Moshe reads the ten job descriptions listed here as refering to the individual’s various spiritual levels. These spiritual levels are inherent in every member of the people (his argument runs: these levels all inhere in our forefather Jacob, also called Israel, as in the verse “all the souls to the house of Jacob” Bereshit 48:27, and consequently inhere in every one of us). All these levels need to be recognized in every individual person. (It is worth noting that R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, in one of his early lectures, synthesizes the early Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch’s individualistic approach, which refers to each person in the community as though they were an integral organ of a single body, with the later communalistic approach, and states that both the individual and the communal are perfected together, harmonizing both approaches).

An attractive and timely reading of this verse, based on a reading assuming a polyvocal self, is found in the Tiferet Shelomo, who links this verse to the upcoming High Holidays- the hayom, the “today”, in our verse, refers to a very specific “today”, the central holiday of Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year. The covenant referred to in the verse is explained as a covenant regarding the possibility of personal teshuva, repentance.

In order to properly “stand before God”, in true contrition, one must analyze and recruit every aspect of one’s personality, explains the Tiferet Shelomo. He quotes the Magid of Zlotchov, who taught that “dividing up all the organs” of the ancient biblical animal sacrifice teaches us to align all the most innermost parts of our divided personality upon undertaking any action (cf. Deleuze’s “body without organs”).

So, then, certainly on Rosh Hashana, when we are reexamining our lives, we need to involve and contemplate all the different aspects of our personality as part of what we call soul searching- but it’s not just the lofty aspects of our being that are required- the Tiferet Shelomo explains the word kulchem, ‘all of you’, as referring to a coming together of the physical body and the spirit; the two trades listed in the verse, the wood hewer and the water carrier, are not  referring to two different individuals, or as two different economic classes or strata- but rather represent the starting point and goal of the individual’s spiritual trajectory: one starts one’s journey hacking away at the Tree of Life, that is, working on transforming one’s self , and as a result, after much labor, one reaches the “water drawing” point where they draw forth the spiritual efflux signified traditionally by water.

In this light, I would actually like to return to the text and suggest a more than metaphorical reading for our passage here in Perashat Nitzavim. Much has been written of the centrality of “covenantalism”, the covenant at Sinai; David Hartmann in his important book stresses the covenant at Sinai as central to the Jewish experience, and R. Soloveitchik speaks frequently of the concept. However, Rabbenu Bachye, following the Ramban, suggests that the covenant here in this section of the Torah, refers to an additional covenant that was enacted. (Technically, there needed to be a second covenant because the covenantal bond at Sinai was damaged by the sin of the golden calf.)

This second covenant is defined by the Rabbis in BT Shavuout 39. as centering on the phrase in verse 13, which binds all future generations, not only to the commandments of Sinai, as in the initial covenant, but also includes within the “contract” a responsibility to relate to the imperatives of future societal challenges, including the enactments proposed by the Jewish leadership later in history (the example given is the later commandment of reading the Megilla on Purim). The binding covenant enacted here is that of the Oral Law, which derives its authority not from above, as in the Sinai covenant, but from the needs of the people, of the individual and societal challenges which arise over the course of a continued unfolding history.

For this reason this text contains all these stringent warnings against division within the community which lead to breaking away from the people, as in verse 17. The Oral Law, as we’ve seen in previous readings, is meant as a method to prevent injustice; the potential for injustice by blind literal application of the text within society is recognized and alleviated and prevented from leading to suffering and strife.

Allegiance to the multiple voices and needs of all the different aspects of society, which as we’ve seen really means being true to the many voices which make up that ever changing construct we call our “selves”, and establishing a just society whereby all these elements are heard protected and cherished- that is the specific covenant established in our text, Moses’ last words as the people were to enter the land and begin their historical mission…



Nitzavim-Vayelech II. Face Hidden, Face Revealed

The opening verse of Perashat Nitzavim states:

“Today you all stand before (lifnei) God, your chiefs, your elders…all of Israel, your children, wives, the strangers in your midst, from the woodchopper to the water carrier, to enter into a covenant with God…”

 It is worth noting that the Hebrew word for ‘before’ is etymologically related to the word panim, ‘face’.

The Kedushat Levi connects this opening use of the word panim in our perasha to the Talmudic description (Rosh Hashana 16.) of the traditional central prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year.

The Rosh Hashana service centers around three sets of verses dealing with the ideas of

1. malchuyot- God’s role as “king”

2. zichronot- covenantal ‘memory’ regarding the Jewish people, and

3. shofarot- verses focusing on the use of the shofar, the ram’s horn traditionally blown during the Rosh Hashana service.

The Talmud states: Recite ‘before me’ malchiyot…; in Hebrew the term ‘before me’ is this same term lifanay, derived from panim, “face”. The Kedushat Levi offers a set of definitions of the term “panim”, the ‘face’ seen frontally, and its Hebrew antonym, achor, which translates as ‘back of the head’ connoting the ‘face averted’ or turned away. He explains that when the term panim is used, it refers to actions in accordance with God’s will, whereas achor is a signifier for not being in accord with God’s will. Thus, the goal of our prayers on Rosh Hashana is that our prayers should re-establish that covenantal moment of panim, that is, the signifying ‘face’ which signifies a positive relationship between humanity and the Divine Presence. The first line of our Torah reading represents an archetypical moment of that covenantal relationship, as the verse states: You are all standing lifnei Hashem, before the “face” of God, in that kind of personal “face to face” relationship.

On the other hand, the next Torah reading segment, known as Vayelech, essentially ends (just prior to introducing Moshe’s last words, the poem that begins with the word Haazinu), with several repeats of the word panim in a negative context.

In 31:17, the verse warns that if the people become idolatrous, God will be angered and avert the “face” from the people. Subsequently, according to the verse, the people will say, because we have not God within us that we are in such trouble, (verse 18), and then God will again hide his face from them for all the evil they have done, in their turning to idolatry. The medieval commentator Ramban wonders why, after the first hester panim, hiding of the face, in the first verse, which the people clearly understand is a result of their personal failing; why after this moment of insight is there this second turning away on the part of God? The Kedushat Levi suggests that perhaps the people need to be brought to feel an even more profound sense of distance from God so that an even deeper level of repentance and subsequent “reconciliation” may be achieved.

R. Zadok Hacohen is unsatisfied with the Ramban’s answer, for after all, we believe that even the most preliminary non-verbalized teshuva, “repentance”, is already transformative, so why would God continue to bring about sufferings upon an already repentant community?

R. Zadok offers an answer which is radically poignant-  the hastarat panim, this second “averted face” here refers not to God turning away from the people a second time- rather it is a declaration that God will turn his face away from the people’s sins; that God will overlook even the sin of idolatry if the people are truly penitent and sincerely attempt a new relationship with the divine. In other words, verse 31:18 reads: On that day ( that is, after the people recognize that their plight is due to their failed relationship with God), God will turn his face away from all the evil the people have committed, overlook their mistakes even if they went so far off course as to worship false idols!

I would like to suggest that the moments of the “turning away” may contain within them at the very same time the seeds of return and forgiveness. With this approach perhaps we may even be able to even re-incorporate the Ramban (who argues that increasing distance may bring about a greater reconciliation). This may be the great secret behind the schizophrenic nature of Rosh Hashana, described as both a day of fear and awe, as well as being a day of joy.

The Netivot Shalom points out the paradoxical nature of Rosh Hashanah as contained within one verse:

tik’u bahodesh shofar, bakeseh l’yom haggeinu, “sound the shofar at the time when the month commences, on the day the moon is hidden (the new moon) which signifies the holiday”-

Contrast bakeseh, which means in the “hiddenness”, and yom hageinu  refers to a day of joy.

We can understand the oppositional clauses of this verse as suggesting that Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to meditate upon the state whereby we feel and experience the divine keseh, “concealment”, the averted Face, the chasm created by sin, rupturing the relationship between us and God. Yet from within that state of lonely distance, within this suffering itself, lies the seed of joyous reunion.

By reaching the existential despair of concealment we are brought back to a face to face relationship with God- our true yearning for closeness to God, even as the tragedy of our lives renders us otherwise mute, unable to theorize or verbalize is facilitated by virtue of the cry of the shofar, that simple, sincere wordless cry from the heart, which is all that is needed to bring us back, from where we stand, to where we wish to stand…


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