Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Nitzavim – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 29:10-Ch.30

Parashat Nitzavim may be subtitled “The Hebrew People - A Testimony of the Covenant and of the Promises.” Although Nitzavim is translated "You stand…" - it actually means "standing in position, standing firmly, or taking a stand," the root being (yod, tzadi, bet/vet) and the definition is “set, establish or take a stand.”[1] According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, however, the root is tz.v.v (tzadi, vet, vet), and means “cover while moving.” [2] Embodied in this Parasha (as well as in the next, Parashat Va’yelech), is the definition of the nation as well as the ultimate promise of grace. Interestingly, about the “nations” which “rage” and “the peoples” who “contemplate a vain thing”, with their “kings and rulers” (mentioned in Psalm 2:1-2), it is said that they “take their stand together against YHVH and His Anointed…” (v.2). In Hebrew “take their stand” is, again, “yit’ya’tzvu,” which places the latter in a parallel but contradictory position to those who stood at the foot of Mount Horeb. Thus, as these two “stances” are placed side by side, one is left with a choice of, where to stand and with whom

The familiar verb "avor" which means “to pass, go through, go over, enter,” and the noun and verb forms of "witness or testimony” ("ed"), show up more than once. The Hebrew people, YHVH’s witnesses, are characterized, as we know, by ‘crossing’ or ‘passing over,’ hence different aspects of this action are presented in the text.

But why are the “passers over” standing “in position” or “formation”? “That you may enter ("avor") the covenant with YHVH your Elohim, and enter ("avor") into His oath [alah – an oath that if broken incurs a curse; in 30:7 it is used as “curse”] which YHVH your Elohim is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your Elohim, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of YHVH our Elohim and with those who are not with us here today" (29:12-15). ). With all the crossing over of the Hebrews, the passing/crossing over into the covenant is of prime importance. Notice also the far reaching aspect of the covenant, to those “not with us today,” thus pointing to the continuity of the people of Yisrael and to generational unity within the boundaries of the covenant. Moreover, in 29:10-11 the text stresses the all-inclusiveness of the covenant by addressing “all of you,” as well as by enumerating the entire social structure of the nation: “your leaders and your tribes and your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones and your wives -- also the stranger who is in your camp, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water.”

Covenant” – “brit” – is of the root b.r.t (bet, resh, tav), meaning to “cut." “Making a covenant” – “karot”- is another verb for “cut” (a tree, for example). Consequently, in making the covenant there is a double cutting as it were, which points emphatically to separation from one’s former situation, both naturally and spiritually (and is signified by the cutting entailed in the physical circumcision). By the same token, by transgression one may experience a “cutting (again, k.r.t, e.g. Lev. 7:20)… away” from the boundaries prescribed by the covenant.

This covenant, being two-sided, is therefore like a two-edged sword. Abba laid down the conditions, but knowing the infidelity which is characteristic of His children’s heart, He also built into the covenant the promise of grace. In other words, ultimately it will be Him only who will make possible its fulfillment, as is seen so vividly in 30:3-10.  In between this promise of grace and the warnings of transgressing His commandments (29:16-28), we read in 29:29: “The things hidden are to YHVH our Elohim, and the things revealed are to us and to our sons -- that we may do all the words of this Torah” (literal translation, italics added). Disobedience cannot be excused by claiming that the Torah is mystical and concealed, and as if this is not enough it says in 30:11-14: "For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us that, we may hear it and do it?'  Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it?'  But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” The word for “mysterious” here is different from the one employed in 29:29 for “hidden.” The present term (v. 14) for “hidden” is “niflet,” rooted in p.l.a (pey, lamed, alef. See Shoftim - Judges 13:18 and Tehilim - Psalm 139:6, in both this word is translated “wonderful”). However, having said all of the above, in the next Parasha (chapter 31) there is warning that could result in situations where YHVH will hide His face from His people (31:17).

Repentance and turning to YHVH will bring a restoration which is expressed in the 30:3-10 passage, where all the verbs are in the ‘active causative form,’ denoting that He is both the initiator and the ‘enactor.’ Not only does He take it upon Himself to enable the fulfillment of the covenant, and at a latter date sends Yeshua to carry all of our afflictions and sufferings, in 31:13 it also says that, "YHVH your Elohim [is He] who will cross (over) ahead of you" (31:3 italics added). YHVH is truly the Elohim of the Hebrews! He goes ahead of them by "crossing over" Himself! At the same time, together with the “crossing” or “passing over” we have here one of those Hebraic dichotomies indicated by “standing firmly.” The blend of both is the desired condition and status designated for the People of Yisrael. And indeed, we see Yeshua crossing  - “over”* – ahead of us, entering within the veil giving us a hope which is sure and steadfast – “yatziv” (ref. Heb. 6:19, 20, Hebrew translation of the Greek, being also of the root Thus, with a “yatziv” (sure) hope, we are enabled to be steadfast and standing firmly in our crossing over journey.

In the meantime, this drama of the covenant nation, its unfaithfulness and the grace granted it, is to unfold in front of the entire universe and creation. The testimony – witness -“ed” – is being established by calling upon heaven and earth (ref. 30:19). The Song of Moses (referred to in Parashat Va’yelech 31:21 and presented in chapter 32) is the written record that serves as a witness, as does the Torah too, which is to be kept in the ark in the Holy of Holies (31:26).

The desolate land (29:23-28) will also bear witness to the unfaithfulness of the people, both before their own sons' eyes, and in front of the foreigners (v. 22), as will their banishment from it (i.e. the land). All this is with view toward the end that, the Hebrew people themselves will become a witness and a testimony nation. "You are my witness, declares YHVH" (Is. 43:10), to the fact that He is the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of creation, and the Elohim of the universe.

As we have already seen, the covenant pertains to this present day generation (see 29:14-15), just as much as it was to those who lived back then. Therefore we too are to "stand firm in position," standing our ground today, to be a covenant people and a witness to the Elohim of the covenant, the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of the Hebrews - the Elohim of grace.

 [1] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.
 [2] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Feldheim       
Publishers, Jerusalem, New York.
*  “Over” is pronounced like “overt,” minus the “t” sound.