PARASHAH: Nitzavim (Standing)
ADDRESS: D'varim (Deuteronomy) 29:9(10)-30:20
READING DATE: Shabbat
AUTHOR: Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)
Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:
YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
The parashah (portion) for this week is a most significant one. To be sure, a verse-by-verse commentary would prove to be very informative for the average reader. Space does not permit me to do such a study, so, I will, instead, explain (what I believe to be) the crux of the passage, that is, the central teaching.
“For Moshe writes about the righteousness grounded in the Torah that the person who does these things will attain life through them. Moreover, the righteousness grounded in trusting says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend to heaven?’”—that is, to bring the Messiah down—or, “’Who will descend into Sh’ol?’”—that is, to bring the Messiah up from the dead. What, then, does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”—that is, the word about trust which we proclaim….” Romans 10:5-8 (emphasis his)
This is a quote from the B’rit Chadashah, specifically, from the pen of Rabbi Sha’ul (Paul) of Tarsus, yet it reads strikingly similar to our text from Parashah Nitzavim! “For this mitzvah which I am giving to you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach. It isn’t in the sky, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will go up into the sky for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’ Likewise, it isn’t beyond the sea, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’ On the contrary, the word is very close to you—in your mouth, even your heart; therefore, you can do it!” (Chapter 30:11-14)
The reason is because, unknown to many New Covenant readers, Rav Sha’ul is quoting Nitzavim, yet he applies a well-known rabbinical method of interpretation, called midrash, to the text. As we shall see, his conclusion to the text was rather radical for his day and age! To be sure, it is for ours as well! Before getting into what he had to say, lets first explore our text from the parashah, found in the Torah Proper.
The opening verse of Nitzavim reads, in the Hebrew:
nitsavim hayom kulechem lifney ADONAI Eloheychem rasheychem shivteychem
zikneychem veshotreychem kol ish Yisra'el. Tapechem nesheychem
asher bekerev machaneycha mechotev etseycha ad sho'ev meymecha.”
Today you are standing, all of you, before ADONAI your
God—your heads, your tribes, your leaders and your officers—all the men
of Isra'el, along with your little ones, your wives, and your
foreigners here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood
to the one who draws your water. (Verses 10,11)
This rather all-conclusive list of representatives from Am Yisra’el (people of Isra’el), spoken by Moshe, tells us that the important message to follow needs to be heard by all. This list included the officers, leaders, tribes, and heads of all the men of Isra’el. But he did not stop there. Verse eleven goes on to include the children and wives of the men, as well as the foreigners who had attached themselves to Isra'el as a people; the entire spectrum of workers was represented here. What was so important to HaShem that he had Moshe assemble all of the people?
Sometimes in speech, the tenses in the verbs can be very crucial for a proper understanding of the text. I believe this is such a case. I must resist the urge to do an exhaustive case-by-case word study here. I will draw your attention, however, to the fact that in Chapter 29, Moshe informs the people that the covenant that HaShem is making with them there, is not just with them alone, but, that the responsibilities will also fall on of their ancestors to come (Verse 14-16). In other words, this includes those today who identify with Am Yisra’el! This lets us know that these words of the Torah (the covenant) are pertinent for us today, and that we might do well to listen to them! These verses contain our “pace-setter” for the rest of the parashah. Let’s read on.
"When the time arrives that all these things have come upon you, both the blessing and the curse which I have presented to you; and you are there among the nations to which ADONAI your God has driven you; then at last, you will start thinking about what has happened to you; and you will return to ADONAI your God and pay attention to what he has said, which will be exactly what I am ordering you to do today—to you and your children, with all your heart and all your being (30:1-3; emphasis on verbs mine).”
Whew! What a statement! What could the Holy One possibly mean by all of this? Surely he wasn’t predicting the disobedience of his children? Surely, if they did disobey him, breaking his covenant, he wouldn’t bring upon them “every curse written in this book”(29:27) would he? Sadly, the Torah historically records that the people did do exactly as HaShem said they would. They forsook the LORD their God, and prostrated themselves to, and served, false gods; false gods that the Holy One despised! But Moshe’s discourse did not stop there. He did mention that they would return to HaShem. Let’s read further.
"At that point, ADONAI your God will reverse your exile and show you mercy… (Chapter 30:3b).” Baruch HaShem (Blessed be the Name)! This is marvelous! The Sovereign LORD himself would bring about the return of the people to the Land of Promise. We see here, unequivocally, that it is the Power of HaShem that brings about a true change of heart! Judaism has a term for this “turn around”, it’s called “t’shuvah”. In it’s truest definition it always involves a 180-degree forsaking of the error, in return back to the truth! HaShem has just instructed the people that despite their apostasy, he would show them mercy and cause their t’shuvah. To be sure, he takes it a step further and introduces a concept familiar to Christian readers of the New Covenant—circumcision of the heart (30:6)! These verses are full of surprises indeed! I have to wonder out loud, “How many of the House of Isra’el really stop to read all of the magnificent promises spelled out for them in this parashah? How many Christians even know that they exist, here in the ‘Old Testament’”? But, HaShem is just getting started! Let’s read further.
"However, all this will happen only if you pay attention to what ADONAI your God says, so that you obey his mitzvot and regulations which are written in this book of the Torah… (30:10).” Now this verse brings us exactly to where our Rabbi from Tarsus started, in the opening verse of my commentary. In order to understand what I’m referring to, you, the student, need to go back and read (on your own) Romans 9:31-10:5.
Here’s the meat of my commentary—pay attention: The Nation of Isra’el, as a whole failed to grasp the central concept of the teaching of Moshe, and consequently, the teaching of Rav Sha’ul. Moshe describes, in no uncertain terms, the availability of the grace of HaShem, when it comes to attaining “life”. Most assuredly, he presents before them, the option to choose “life” and “good”, or “death” and “evil” (30:15-20). In the verses quoted at the onset of my commentary, Moshe describes “IT” as not being too hard for them to grasp; he describes the “IT” as not being beyond their reach either! This important “IT” wasn’t in the sky, which was obviously out of their reach, providing them with a legitimate excuse for disobedience, had “IT” remained there. Likewise, the “IT” wasn’t beyond the [Mediterranean] sea, providing them once again with the same excuse for disobedience. “On the contrary,” says Moshe, “IT” was very close to them, in their mouths [!], even in their hearts (New Covenant feature again)—therefore, they could do “IT”! Whoever said that a person could not keep the Torah? Where does this idea come from that “IT” is too difficult? Or that “HaShem is asking too much of me”? But wait! What is the “IT”? Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), the “IT” that Moshe is referring to can only be the Torah! Or could it also be a hint (remez) of something even greater?
Rav Sha’ul, I believe, supplies us with the answer. I need you, the reader, to recall the strange but true example that John used in Chapter 1, verses 1-14 of his Gospel. Here, John gives us a lesson in “Torah algebra”. In verse one, the Torah was with HaShem, yet, the Torah is HaShem (Torah=HaShem)! But in verse fourteen, John goes on to tell us that the Torah became a human being and lived with us (Torah=human being)! The rest of John’s account in that first chapter, explicitly states that Yeshua the Messiah is that human being! So, according to “Torah algebra”: If Torah=HaShem, and Torah=human being, then HaShem=human being! This is controversial indeed! No Jew, using normal modes of logic would accept this interpretation. But Rav Sha’ul was not using normal logic when he quoted the passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14, and applied his rabbinical teaching tool called midrash on it! He was using heavenly logic.
Yeshua the Messiah is undoubtedly the subject of Romans 10:5-8. Yet the rabbi identifies the “IT” of Deuteronomy with the Messiah! Why? Because of the truth that you and I already know about Yeshua, as explained earlier by John. Yeshua came from heaven! —He did not remain up there, out of our reach, providing us with some valid excuse for lack of faith, which leads to disobedience; nor is he “beyond the sea”, or to put it the way Sha’ul did, still “inSh’ol”. The fact that Sha'ul doesn’t use the exact same wording as Moshe here, but opts for the example of Sh’ol (the place of the dead, i.e. hell), does not seriously alter the meaning of what Moshe meant. In fact, Sha’ul’s example takes the application a step further. For the Hebrew mind, if something was “beyond the sea”, it might as well have been “in Sh’ol”—for it was beyond the reach of normal human efforts to obtain! And in the case of Sh’ol, it was impossible! At any rate, Yeshua was not, and still is not beyond the reach of normal human efforts—for he has been risen (from Sh’ol) by the power of HaShem, and is now available for everyone who will trust! His life from the dead now produces life in all that obey and put their trust in him! These are the very same choices that Moshe was describing!
Because the goal, or focus, at which the Torah aims is the Messiah (certainly not the end of the Torah), all that go on to receive him find, as HaShem promised through the mouth of Moshe, life and good! We can see from these examples how intimately Yeshua relates to the Torah—not just as the “living Word”, but as the eternal choice presented to man. Today, we are also presented with a choice:life through Yeshua, the Living Torah…. Or death, because of disobedience and disbelief…. Considering the abundant mercy that the Holy One, blessed be He, has poured out through his Son, how can we not accept him as our Savior?
“It is not in heaven”
We shall devote our attention in this chapter to one of the many passages dealing with Jewish fundamentals that occur towards the end of the Torah:
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (30:11-14)
Our commentators differed regarding the interpretation of this passage from our sidra. The question to be decided is whether "this commandment" refers to the duty of repentance dealt with in the foregoing verses (ibid. 1--10), or whether the whole Torah, its obligations and precepts, is being summed up in the one phrase: "this commandment".
Nahmanides adheres to the former opinion, that the passage refers to the mitzvah of repentance (teshuvah), the Torah wishing to emphasize that nothing stands in its way and no man can find valid excuses of time, place and circumstance to defer the duty of returning to God. Commenting on the passage: "though any of thine be driven out into the outmost parts of heaven..." he states:
From here it is abundantly clear that Nahmanides connects, "this commandment" with the duty of repentance outlined at the beginning of the chapter. Teshuvah, it is emphasized, is not dependent on external conditions, on where the Jewish people lives or on the pressure of alien cultures. It is purely a matter of individual free choice. It depends on his resolution to return to the Divine source, however far he has become alienated from it, and however numerous the barriers that have grown up between him and his Creator: "but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it".
Albo the great medieval Jewish philosopher in his Sefer Ha Ikkarim ("Book of Principles") takes a similar view, regarding all the three sections of the chapter as forming one whole:
Albo thus takes the view that the context indicates that we are dealing with the commandment of teshuvah. Most of our commentators hold this view to be untenable and maintain we are dealing with the whole complex of Jewish observance. Our Sages in the Talmud assume this to be the case, in their discussion of the passage:
Rashi echoes the above dictum and his comment prompted his super commentator Mizrahi to pose the following question:
The answer to this query is to be found in the wording of the text itself. It could have read simply: "It is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off: it is not in heaven nor beyond the sea". This is sufficient to provide the contrast to the closing, determining phrase, "but the thing is very nigh unto thee...". The fact that it necessary to add the phrase: "That thou shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven... that thou shouldst say, Who shall go over the sea and bring it...'' indicates that if it was really so inaccessible, we would still be naturally obliged to go after it. The formulation of the question presumes its validity. The text thus lends itself to two divergent meanings:
Both interpretations read the question as a rhetorical one. The difference is that according to one reading the rhetorical question bears a negative inference (Isaiah 40,12 "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?"; Jeremiah 16:20 "Shall a man make unto himself gods?"). According to the other reading the rhetorical question bears a positive, beseeching connotation (See II Samuel 23:15 "Who will give me water to drink?) Though the first reading sounds more plausible, yet the Beer Yitz’chak prefers the second reading.
The reader can see himself that the second interpretation is to be preferred. Beside the consideration that the subject itself is so all important and rightly demands that we go to the ends of the earth in its service, the first reading bears the objection that it contains nothing new. Did not the Israelites know that the Torah was not in heaven? At most, it was sufficient to state that it was not in heaven, nor beyond the sea. The additional questions support our contention and lend plausibility to the second reading.
[Ariel's personal edit: The final analysis provided by our teacher Leibowitz (below in underline) is the sole opinion of some within Rabbinic Judaism. By contrast Apostolic Judaism, a.k.a. Messianic Judaism concludes that while the Torah was indeed given to mankind, the Spirit of the Holy One continues to provide daily guidance to whomever he wills, particularly to those that have availed themselves of the Ruach HaKodesh and Yeshua.]
Thus we have two aspects to our text. "It is in heaven" emphasizes the facility and feasibility of Torah affording therefore no excuse for neglect. It also implies the heavy responsibility devolving on the students and scholars of the Torah. Since it is not in heaven, man can no longer rely on heavenly guidance but must interpret it and teach it himself with his own resources.
The Torah is not the property of a privileged caste of priests and initiates. It is not in heaven but in our midst. It is the duty of all to study, teach and practice its tenets.
The closing blessing is as follows:
YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,